What is this X?

By Favour Domino. Favour, 14, is a student at the Global School of Science. He lives in Ibadan, Nigeria

My youngest uncle is unemployed. He has been searching for a job since he graduated from the university in 2015, and I have heard my father complaining that the recruitment agencies and employers are wicked people. “They do not want the poor to see light at all”, he had said three weeks ago. ” How can someone who studied Mass Communication continue to be invited to job assessment tests where he will solve math questions? What does finding X have to do with news writing?” Because he is the only person who is never bothered about my father’s hot temper, that day, our neighbour, Papa Solomon, had thrown a funny question at my father from his doorway at the other side of the compound: “Wetin be that X wey I dey hear every time sef, oga?” Papa Solo’s question is the Nigerian Pidgin English version for “WHAT IS THIS X?”

I have since discovered that my uncle has not been passing job tests because he is not good at anything that involves the plus, minus, multiplication or other mathematical signs (more talk of algebra). Our educational curriculum is programmed in a way that makes math or algebra become irrelevant after admission into a university. However, this does not make algebra – the branch of mathematics that substitutes letters for numbers and requires finding unknowns- any less relevant in real life. We are always faced with problems that require solutions in real life, and my maths teacher has explained that algebra is basically finding these answers which are often called the ‘unknown variables’. For example, I am sure that those who catch thieving politicians, internet scammers, and other criminals must first look for the unknown (what is missing), add it to what is left, and be able to deduce or conclude that based on certain factors and facts, Mr A has stolen money. Those who build bad roads and bridges that collapse too soon must have failed in some algebraic calculation or other, because these examples actually require algebra. If you mix or use forty kilograms of cement on a truckload of sand, it is possible that the block, wall or other structure that you intend to build will have problems. I have learned this while observing the labourers who built the new blocks of classrooms in my school. It requires calculation for you to know what to do, and finding this unknown (X) is what algebra is about.

What about those tasks like news writing mentioned above, that do not necessarily require a mathematician to do them? Well, it is possible that those who make people write tests that include algebra before they can be employed as reporters require these aspiring journalists to possess analytical minds, the ability to look at things logically. I remember when my father forced us to watch the last United States presidential elections on our small GoTv-powered television. At a point, we noticed that so many figures about pre-election polls, past voting processes and trends or other such variables were used by the reporters to predict the outcome and report on the electoral process. Surely, these journalists who may have studied Mass Communication like my uncle would not have been able to juggle numbers or statistics, variables and in depth, interpretive commentaries if they did not have little knowledge of algebra? What about soldiers? Do you know that those heroes use algebra to protect us? It requires a little bit of algebra to pick out a terrorist with a rifle when the wind is working against a trained marksman, or to even estimate how many lives can be lost if a certain explosive goes off in a particular time and place. Such algebraic efforts will lead you to prioritize security threats. We see this even in some great movies.

My father is not happy that algebra is being given an unnecessarily lofty position in our lives, and I can empathize with him. My teachers once had a heated argument at school about the essence of everyday math. Of course, that includes algebra. What I understood – by eavesdropping- is that algebra seems to be given a rather abstract and unearthly look by teachers. “If only those who teach algebra will be able to apply them to everyday problems more often, you will begin to see it differently”, my teacher had said during the argument. If we look at algebra as the unrealistic search for things that are more sci-fi that real, then that is what it will become. But if we realise that finding the number of chewing gums (X) in a pack where 22 pieces have been dropped and 28 are remaining is a way of prepping us for when we will need to calculate how many sweets and biscuits our children carry in their backpacks to school in a week, or even a time when we can begin to get jobs by proving how good we are at logic and algebra, then we will begin to realise that X is the answer to the things we do not know. In this case, X is algebra. And our teachers can play a role in changing our perceptions about algebra. My maths teacher

….. is doing this for us currently.

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