The X-Man Cometh


What might have been? A career as a math teacher, perhaps.

Jeff WeinstockSHORTLY AFTER OUR EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, Geoff Fletcher, wonderedin his column last month what profession he might have entered had henot gone into education, I myself was given some possible occupationalalternatives by a group of first-graders when I made an appearance in theirclassroom during a unit on careers. The teacher asked them to size me upand guess my job. Boy, kids say the darndest things, such as: Are you apolice officer? Do you hunt birds? Do you build fences?

That would be no, no, and so I've been told.

I'm starting to think that had I not found my niche in journalism, I would have taught math, having just completed a five-week stint doing just that, trying to help my wife through an algebra course. I hadn't seen hide nor hair of a negative coefficient or a downward parabola in 25 years, but to my profound delight, it all came back to me like an old limerick. If only students knew the one thing no one ever tells them about math: It's exhilarating. You know what's exhilarating about it? It doesn't change. Rise over run. Prime factorization. Even the flippin' quadratic formula! They're all right where I left them, like Aerosmith, perfectly preserved from 1983.

Note that my wife got a D in the course and is retaking it, so I might not have made out well as a math teacher. I'm not entirely up on modern pedagogy, though I suppose when asked why a certain algebraic principle is so, I could find a more evolved, teacherly response than, "Because!"

I'm good with the broader picture. Faced with a stack of fractions and variables that she was being asked to solve, my wife defaulted to that eternal question demanded of math problems everywhere, accusing algebra of irrelevancy: What on earth could be the point of this? That I can answer.

Because solving a mathematical equation is one of life's greatest exercises-I swear it is. You lock on, penetrate, factor, group like with like, cancel out, simplify, circle back-persist, persist, persist!-until you have cracked it. And now the universe has nothing on you because you have reached into its maw and pulled out X. There is no thrill in the whole educational pursuit like unsealing X. Perhaps only the 3 p.m. bell can top it.

Speaking of my old nemesis, the riddler-dear old X-it's still around too, hiding in plain sight, same as it ever was. Unsparing, indifferent, poker-faced, cagey, pitiless X-still waiting to be revealed. I figure with the intervening years, my old algebra teacher may have some wear on him. But X is still X. And that goes double-I'm still me. How gratifying it was to find both were true.

-Jeff Weinstock, Executive Editor

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.