What is algebra? Perhaps it is not merely an eclection of figures and numbers that make the sane majority of the population shiver and back as far away from the aforementioned as possible, but rather a challenge. Algebra is, by definition, “the part of mathematics in which letters and other general symbols are used to represent numbers and quantities in formulae and equations” and so are, henceforth, things that represent other things. Shadows. Illusions. Problems. A red mist disguising an answer. The obstacle in the way of the truth… oh believe me I could go on.
Fran Lebowitz’s words of reassurance may resonate warmly with those struggling their way through maths GCSE, and yet he could not be more wrong. Everyone has their “algebra.” For me, my algebra was quite literally algebra. I have dyscalculia, essentially dyslexia for maths, and ever since I can remember maths has been the bane of my life. The mere mention of maths or numbers of any kind is enough to send shivers down my spine and place me on the verge of an asthma attack – and I don’t even suffer from asthma. Numbers would never make sense to me – they were confusing and irrelevant, useless and far too complex. I believed, however, that I could contain my hatred for the subject to just the classroom and yet numbers bleed into everyday life like a spilt jar of jam – sticky, irritating and painfully unavoidable. Crossing the road, I would have to think for that little moment longer as to which is my left and which is my right, splitting the bill with friends on a night out and always adding up my portion wrong (tactful until you end up chipping in more than you should rather than less) and of course just counting in general. “How many tomatoes are there?” “How many friends are coming round tonight?” “How many days until your birthday?” Maths is everywhere. How I really wish that it wasn’t and yet it creeps into every little nook and cranny, every other sentence, every shop, every raw and wonderful aspect of “real life.”
For women, “algebra” is still the battle to become equal. To wear that cream mini skirt with that low-cut silk top and not be called a “slut” or be told that she is “asking for it.” To go home with that good-looking boy with the good-looking hair and not be called a “whore” whilst he gets called a “legend.” To not being told to “get back in the kitchen” or that “she runs like a girl” but to throw open doors, crush business meetings, build things, direct things, run, swim, box, climb and more importantly break that suffocating glass ceiling. For LGBT members, their “algebra” comes once again in the form of equality. For the girl to marry the girl, for that boy to become the girl she has always been and for the resplendently powerful rainbow flag to be accepted across the whole globe. So yes, Lebowitz, there is such thing as algebra in real life. It is the feeling of the tongue of the hot African sun licking the side of your face as you watch your brothers go off to school, whilst your hands are blistered by the water bucket you hold instead. It is the feeling of white fists in your side merely for the crime of having skin the colour of melted hot chocolate. It is the smell of your own sweat as you crouch in the back of a lorry in a bid to flee the bombs that rain on your country like the tears down your face. It is the feeling of being unable to get out of bed in the morning, chained by the fear of your own mind, unable to escape the cloud that suffocates you. It is the food you can’t eat because you have to look like that model, you just have to. It is the food that you can’t afford. It is Grenfell Tower, it is Syria, it is Isis, it is Trump.
Algebra is everywhere. It is in eyes the colour of palm leaves, those with coconut skin, it is in the blood of those who love women and those who love men. It is in blue eyes, blind eyes, deaf ears and poisoned hearts. It is in a country, in morals, in a leader or perhaps just in your mind. It is in real life, and I assure you that there is such thing as “algebra” – just not the conventional one. Algebra is your battle, your obstacle, your challenge. Everyone has their own algebra.