The algebra problem

Chuck Grimes cgrimes at
Sun May 20 12:04:31 PDT 2001

Sometimes an extremely small incident reveals something about the nature of a much larger and much more comprehensive phenomenon. The way things work in the world is opened in a flash.

I've been helping my warehouse buddy Joe M get through his elementary algebra class. It is the same one that most people on lbo went through sometime in junior high or middle school. Joe is in his fifties, grew up in Oakland housing projects, and never took it in school.

Joe's final is coming up next week and the instructor who is foreign with english as a second language marches through the course proforma. Joe got lost early and has been playing catch up since about the second or third week. But I've been going over each chapter with him and correcting a few things on his home work. The graded tests are handed back then collected again as standard policy. I suppose this is to keep cheating to a minimum and so he never brings in any of his exams to go over and look at.

Last week, he gave me a copy of a practice final and marked a couple of problems he didn't understand. I did them and listed out all the steps. The next day, I looked at some of his work and saw more errors, so I decided to work out the whole test, listed in steps on how to approach each problem. Friday, as we had just started going over a particularly tricky problem, one of my bosses came into the shop and asked me to go help somebody getting some equipment out of their van. It was a pointed interruption with the message, quit talking to Joe, and do your job.

That's it.

It's not my job to help Joe get through algebra. It wouldn't have been my job to help Joe get through algebra forty years ago---and not last year, this year, not ever. Get it? It's not Joe's job to take algebra, not now, not ever.

It threw me back into the past, into those hot spring afternoons in LA, in those low bungalow style schools spread out over acres, hundreds of kids running around on the play ground screaming, baking asphalt and smog, noise, sprinklers, sweaty feet squishing in worn tennis shoes, talking in class, looking at some other kid's scribbling efforts; looking into their eyes trying to explain it, and realizing that they are not going to make it. They're doomed. A pointless interruption, one of millions erases everything in an instant.

Consider the millions and millions of times this happens to millions of kids in all those schools. It is as simple as that.

Chuck Grimes

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