12/08/2012 04:33 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2013

Racing Up the Down-Moving Escalator

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

There is that first moment when you realize you live in a pressure cooker. For me, that moment came in sixth grade. In my counselor's uncomfortably white office, I am squirming opposite her in the chair of doom (reserved only for hooksters, bullies, and other specimens of evolutionary misfire). She says, "Gregory, you will not make it into advanced math next year unless you raise your grades."

Horrors! I have to make it to advanced math! What will my parents think of me if I don't? I see flashes of my funeral. It is not crowded.

One day, I'd like to know how the last decade would have unfurled had my counselor not given me The Talk. I'd like to know how different I would be had I attended a school that did not separate the starbound from the floor-huggers when we were still practically crawling.

I do know this: As is common in America, my school system divided us into advanced and "normal" math tracks when we were in seventh grade. By ninth grade, science classes were tracked in similar grain (biology was harder than geology), which coincided with a stellar explosion in the number of math levels. But there was still only one level of English, one level of history.

During that middle school period when we measure ourselves by little things, the students who take the most advanced classes are considered the smartest. Since all the advanced classes are math classes, proficiency at math becomes the measure of your intelligence.

And I know that this infused me with a bristling desire to be good at math above all else. Unfortunately, I am threatened by sums that exceed my age.

There is, of course, plenty of reason to track math earlier than other subjects. Talent in math (and music) can often be recognized early on, and schools should respond to gifted math students by spawning the accelerated courses needed to challenge them.

But as a seventh grader, I did not see that. I saw only simple things. I saw friends coast into advanced math without breaking a gnat's sweat. I knew that to lift myself out of the ruts, to burst beyond the belly of the bell curve and into the zone of certified smartness, I had only to get good at math.

It is not uncommon to associate, as I did, math proficiency with intelligence, academic success, and everything else that is important in life. Sir Ken Robinson notes the universal but rarely acknowledged hierarchy of the subjects, in which math is esteemed most, followed by the sciences and then the humanities, and the theatrical arts the least. The impulse to track math and science before tracking the humanities reflects partly on the relative values we place on those disciplines.

Hierarchies, however, crush creativity. They may boost test scores in math and science (a good thing), but hierarchies refract our perceptions about which subjects are worth studying. They function as societal rubrics that encourage us down a particular path. Students who do conform gain skills but lose passion. In a 21st century economy where the innovative player nabs the spotlight and bonus, the unpassionate will be watching from the sidelines.

Incidentally, I was indeed able to raise my sixth grade scores. I made it into advanced math in seventh grade (so did three-fourths of the grade, although I didn't tell my parents that). In eighth grade, however, I found that I had been placed back into normal math (the effrontery!), so I studied feverishly and managed to transfer mid-year into the honors level (badda-bing!). All the while I felt like I was racing up a down-moving escalator, engaged in an impossible endeavor to catch up with the big-leaguers. As a result, it took me a long time to figure out what I really did love.

Which was writing.

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