Why did I have to learn calculus?

I was math student of the year in elementary school.

Why did I have to learn calculus?
Photo by Jeswin Thomas / Unsplash

In elementary school I won a mathematics award. It was around second or third grade and it was for being math student of the year, or something along those lines.

This would be the highlight of my mathematic career.

In eighth grade I wasn’t allowed to attend algebra at the high school. Instead, I was in a math class with three other boys and about fifteen girls who also didn’t make the cut. The four boys sat on the side of the room looking at everyone else. This was a prime set up to “grade each other’s papers.” I aced all of those quizzes.

Each week there was a puzzle to solve written on the “Zoomer” board at the back of the room. These puzzles were what janitor Matt Damon solved in Good Will Hunting. Solving the weekly puzzle awarded extra credit. Sometimes I solved the puzzles while other times it was more of a group effort.

Our teacher loved math. She loved it so much that she abhorred any defamation of the subject. She came to us with a full page advertisement for Kudos bars that showed a confused student starring at an exaggerated math problem. The caption said something like, “Confused? Eat Kudos.” and pictured the chocolate-covered granola bars. This just couldn’t stand.

As a class we wrote letters to Kudos explaining that math, in fact, is vital to our society. Trivializing and disparaging such an essential subject is cruel… I have no idea what I actually wrote, but it was probably buttered with fancy sounding jargon to convey my thirteen-year-old displeasure. Not to mention insuring I received an A on the assignment.

Kudos responded with an apology letter and a case of their granola bars.

In high school my algebra teacher didn’t think I had what it took to go into algebra two. She preferred I went into some other class. I preferred I stayed in classes with my friends. So when I handed her the form to approve my class request for the following year, I had written in the class name in pencil. She signed. I erased the class and wrote “algebra two.” Problem solved.

In college, I majored in entrepreneurship. This required I took math classes through “business calculus” and accounting. I couldn’t tell you what the difference between business calculus and regular calculus was then and I still can’t tell you today.

That year, a friend came to visit. He was way smarter than I and enrolled at UNC as a sophomore. He came to my business calculus class because he wanted to see what it was all about. That evening he explained the grad student teaching the class was doing so incorrectly. He showed me what I should do and I remember nothing else about business calculus.

In the fifteen years since I’ve taken a math class, I cannot recall writing out an equation or needing to find the area of a circle. My eighth grade teacher will hate me if she ever sees this. I’ve used a ton of accounting, which is math, but the algebra? Calculus? Nope.

Until earlier this week.

I was trying to measure the dimensions on a blueprint for a special project I was working on. The problem is the blueprint wasn’t printed to the proper scale since it wouldn’t fit on my printer. So I printed a small portion actual size and tried to figure out the new scale.

I needed to use algebra.

I wrote out .8125x = 2.625. Both numbers represented 21 feet on their respective blueprints, but I need to solve for x to figure out what I’d need to multiply all of my measurements by. That’s when I had a moment of clarity.

I could dig back into my mind and remember the transitive property and all those other things filed away long ago. I could do that or I could just google the answer.

I found a website called Quick Math and typed in my equation. Boom. Answered. This was more satisfying than typing “8008135” on a TI-85+. The answer was presented and I could take my measurements. Living in the future is fun.

Maybe I had to learn calculus because it taught me problem solving skills. Maybe those skills helped my brain form the pathways needed that allowed “google the answer” to pop into my brain. Maybe. But also probably not.

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!