Old number nine

Teacher talk

Posted: Friday, March 14, 2003

I love numbers and looking for patterns. I search for them in my own life. I bid a variation of pi on my first house a few years back because I needed to start somewhere and a piece of the pi seemed like a perfectly, irrational, non-terminating, non-repeating significant place to start.

I have discovered a pattern in my life recently. It seems to revolve around the old number nine. The number nine is a perfect square and squared it's 81. Perhaps I will be lucky enough to experience 81 years of living.

I was happy when I was 9 years old. I was in Mrs. Hess' fourth grade class at Farwell School in Lewiston, Maine. I had two more years of fun ahead of me playing on the playground, exploring the woods, hitting home runs, and being smart. Grades didn't seem to matter then.

At 18, I seemed smart, I worked hard, and I headed off to college in the big city of Boston. High school prepared me with a bunch of tools. Mrs. Cornelius' geometry class taught me to think logically and see geometrically. Mrs. Connell planted the basics of grammar into my head, though I have since slipped into my own crude style. Mrs. Nelson taught me to appreciate Shakespeare and to look for meaning in what I read. I discovered in high school that I liked computers and math, but no one asked me what I was dreaming or where I wanted to be in five years, 10 years, or nine years.

My 27th year marked a point of transition in my life. In the previous nine years, I had survived college, got a taste of Alaska, and worked as a children's advocate at the A.W.A.R.E. shelter. I then switched gears, made my father proud, and began to "use my degree" by working for IBM here in Juneau. For a while, I put on a blue suit every morning, broke out the heels and nylons, and learned to tastefully apply make-up. Twenty-four-year-old me felt so much more respected selling computers and ideas to the Juneau School District then than I do now at 36, working for the district as a teacher. I enjoyed the money, educational promise, and freedom of corporate America, but I missed working directly with kids.

Now, I find myself at 36. I am six years into a teaching career I enjoy and grow with every day. My father is no longer around. He wasn't so keen on the idea of my becoming a teacher, but it is not his life is it? It is hard to give up your parent's dreams for you in order to find your own dreams for yourself.

I think of life as a circle. You never know the length of the radius, but I like to think it is growing with every passing day. I remember learning about tangents in geometry class 22 years ago. A beautiful line touching your circle in only one point. Sometimes in life I reach those points of tangency and I pass right by them. Now I look for them and take the tangent ride for a while to see where the road will take me. I am rarely disappointed.

So where will I be at 45, 54, 63, 72 and 81? I don't know, though I have my own dreams now. Did you know when you add the digits of any multiple of nine, the result will always be the quantity nine? There are strange and beautiful patterns in life worth exploring and thinking about just for fun; just to make your brain hurt. Math is challenging for many students. Every nine months of a school year I meet roughly 135 (9x15) new students, and I always get asked the same darn question, "When am I ever going to need to know this?" I think this is a legitimate question, although I cannot always stop class to explain my general philosophy about brain development, the importance of continuing to take math throughout high school, and what the research says. So now, to you my students I answer in a long-winded Gervais fashion, "Heck if I know how you are going to use it.

But, if you look for the patterns in your life someday, perhaps you will find that you use far more of what you learned in high school than you would ever have imagined."

Mary-Lou Gervais teaches math at Juneau-Douglas High School. This column is intended as a place for teachers to talk to parents, students, one another and the community about education and the good things happening in their classrooms.

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