03/25/2014 11:33 am ET Updated May 25, 2014

Bemused by a Math Muse

Justin Lewis via Getty Images

I do not hate math. I respect math. I did well in math. But because I've not used many math skills beyond the basics in my adult life, I've often questioned our education system's obsession with math and its dominance in our classrooms. And now that I have children getting confused by math and asking me for homework help I'm increasingly unable to provide, my questions grow more personal and pointed.

So, I called an old acquaintance, a math wizard, and we met for coffee. She pulled from her purse an odd little pouch with a Mobius strip embroidered on the front. Glancing up to see if I noticed, she extracted three sugar cubes from the pouch, added them to her latte, and stirred in a slow figure-eight pattern.

"Three cubed is 27," I said, hoping to start off the meeting with some sweet, good humor. She smiled back, saccharinely.

I continued. "Our school district switched to a new math program for elementary schools that does not match the methodology they'll find in middle school math." She stared at me. "And many of the teachers, when pressed, confess they dislike and distrust this new math approach and think it does not work for the kids."

Silently, her head shifting subtly. She eyed me as she might appraise an ape in a zoo cage. I decided to fling a bit of figurative feces her way. "You know, not everyone aspires to be a mathematician or an engineer. Many of us hire math whizzes to help us accomplish what we want in business, in government, in entertainment, the service sector. You know, like hiring a plumber or a dance instructor."

"Are you a sincere seeker?" she asked. "Would you like to know the secrets of math?"

"Not really. I just want to know how to do those number squares my daughter brings home."

Petting her pouch, she pulled out another sugar cube and dropped it into my decaf. "Drink this in," she purred while stirring.

I sipped. She stirred. My eyes were riveted on the eddying coffee. The whirlpool motion mesmerized me. My consciousness seemed sucked down into a swirling vortex. Numbers and mathematical symbols cascaded around me as I fell deeper into an altered state of reality.

I found myself facing an old-fashioned blackboard, blank. Where am I? Do I wash this? Write something 50 times?

A piece of chalk rose into the air and began to scratch a trail on the blackboard. It read, "Welcome to Remedial Math. How may we assist you?"

"I want to know why our schools insist on pushing harder and faster for advanced math skills when so many of our high school graduates can't comprehend a ballot statement or write a one-paragraph letter requesting medical records. Don't we write and communicate more than we perform math as adults?"

The chalk dropped to the floor, breaking into fragments. Another piece rose and wrote, "Sputnik."

"Fine, I understand national defense, space travel, and medical technology," I said. "We live in Silicon Valley, know many mathematicians and engineers, and benefit from their brilliant work. But I clearly remember the very mixed skills of my own math teachers. Several understood intuitively how and why to perform certain functions, but because their understanding was intuitive, they were unable to explain it, to teach it."

Hesitantly, with starts and pauses, the chalk wrote, "I do not understand the problem."

"I'm trying to say that we all have different innate abilities. Already, I see some of my kids' friends interested in math and some who are not. Surely, there should be differentiation."

The chalk screeched, "Laning."

"But if children are not great at math, they can be relegated to lower lanes where they may lose confidence in their abilities with other subjects. And many math adepts can't handle the higher lanes of, say, English. My question is, why is math ability such a major arbiter of academic placement and achievement?"

The chalk responded, "We are a high tech society."

"Not everyone aspires to be an engineer. It's math's overbearing position in the educational hierarchy that concerns me. Aren't we neglecting reading, writing, history, foreign languages, arts, you name it, with our extreme emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math?"

Quickly, the chalk scribbled, "Are there no libraries, theaters, poet slams, sports arenas?" Then, as if irritated, the chalk sped across the blackboard scrawling almost illegibly, "You are granted one final question." The chalk loudly punched the period on the sentence, breaking itself in the process.

What could I ask, I thought, that would release me from this mad immersion in math, this grip math had over me, this feeling that my children's futures and life directions were being predetermined by some rote math test they took while still more children than adults?

A chalk sliver rose and wrote, "Time's up. Pencils down."

I felt trapped in a world where two and two didn't add up. Around me, I saw the faces of children who answered math questions wrong and were forced to the outskirts of the group where they became weakened prey to the ravages of lowered expectations. Jaunty technophiles wearing computer eyewear strayed into the paths of unmarked grey drones that instantly transformed them into walking numbers. Splashing through a barren land of ankle deep water, the numbers marched lock step toward a horizon warped into infinity's sideways figure eight.

"Eureka!" I thought. "What," I asked the chalk sliver tapping impatiently on the blackboard, "is the value of pi?"

The chalk sliver slowly wrote out, "3.14," then added, "159265359" until it wore itself to nothing. Another piece of chalk rose from the floor and continued the series of digits. Other chalk pieces formed a queue in the air, bumping into each other, cutting into line, shedding chalk dust in their eagerness for their turns on the blackboard.

I took this as an opportunity to escape. Looking around for an exit, I noticed the coffee spoon's bowl nearby. I hopped on and climbed up the handle, guided by a single beam of white light above.

I found myself back in my chair at the café. Everything seemed normal again. All the other customers stared intently at their own digital devices. They hadn't noticed a thing. My friend was gone.

That sure was some number the chalk talk laid on me, and whether it was real, irrational, or transcendental, muse or monster, I'll never know. But I sure was happy to be in the aftermath. I longed for fresh air, the sight of a bird, sunshine, but first had to pay the check. Now what the heck is 18 percent of $9.75?