They say nobody’s perfect, and I guess that’s true. We all have our little handicaps and imperfections, whether we acquire them by nurture or nature. We can be left-handed or colorblind, or have irritating habits such as laughing too loud, or biting our fingernails. And I’m no exception.
No, my problem is a constant humiliation. I’m arithmetically challenged, and can't do even the simplest addition and subtraction in my head. No, seriously. Faced with what you’d probably consider the easiest sum, my mind seizes up. I've always been mystified by this shortcoming. After all, I had a pricey private education at upper-crust British seats of learning. I learned (and then forgot) one dead language and two living ones, mastered subjects from English, history and geography to physics, chemistry and biology, and most people would be fairly happy to swap IQs with me. Both my father and brother made good livings in banking, so why am I such a mutt at math?
One time when this disability used to rear its head was whenever I was paying the check at a restaurant, with my pen poised while I calculated the tip. In those days, if you’d watched carefully, you’d have noticed that, though barely perceptibly, my knuckles were moving up and down, while my brow furrowed with the concentration of the task in hand.
I went through this embarrassing process for years until, not long ago, I discovered a little printed plastic card called a ‘tip calculator,’ that tells me fifteen and twenty percent of any sum up to one hundred dollars. With this, holding the card surreptitiously under the table, I can now sneak a look while the waiter or waitress makes out the final check. In this way I impress guests with my seemingly instant mental arithmetic. Of course, in the privacy of my own home I whip out a calculator with the best of them, and do the most basic sums without the embarrassment I’d experience using it in a restaurant, a barber’s shop or a cab. Working out a tip in a taxi is still a trial, because it’s almost always too dark in the back to read my cheat sheet.
My wife, who’s infuriatingly competent at absolutely everything, says, “It’s so easy! To work out fifteen percent of something, all you do is move the decimal point one place to the left to get ten percent. Then you just add half that number to it to get your fifteen percent.” She calls that easy?
Of course, being inflicted in this way doesn’t begin and end with calculating tips. Every day there’s a need for mental arithmetic, such as working out lengths, heights and widths in do-it-yourself jobs. And then there’s the constant problem of working out the change I should get in a store. If normal people pay $13.37 for something and hand over $20, they immediately know how much change to expect. But I don’t.
Was this inability inherited, or caused by some life experience? My very earliest memories of math at school couldn’t have been happier. In the mid-1930s, at a convent school starting at the age five, I was taught very elementary arithmetic by kindly nuns. We wrote the numbers on wood-framed slates with slate pencils that made the most excruciating scrooping sounds. Later, we moved on to two-times tables, mouthing them in unison to our smiling, nodding tutors. “Two twos are four, three twos are six, four twos are eight . . .” I still have instant recall of those tables up to twelve twelves.
But there were no kindly nuns when, only a few years later, I was sent to my first boarding school far from home. Here, a scruffy, mop-headed, sour-faced Welshman called Dai Griffin took over where they left off. Mr. Griffin – we called him ‘Dirty Dai’– galloped through multiplication and long division at a cracking pace that was fine for the brightest and most numerate of his class, but not for the rest of us. He had a thick Welsh accent, and was given to outbursts of rage, when he was liable to throw sticks of blackboard chalk around the classroom.
With Mr. Griffin, arithmetic became a fearsome ordeal, something to dread. It became even harder when we began calculations to do with money. Britain’s currency was not yet decimalized; instead we had pounds, shillings and pence. Now listen carefully, there were twenty shillings in a pound, twelve pence in a shilling, and two halfpennies (ha’pennies) or four farthings in a penny. How would you go about adding twenty-eight pounds, seven shillings and fourpence-farthing to seventeen pounds, three shillings, and eightpence-ha’penny?
Around the time when Mr. Dai Griffin was about to launch into algebra and geometry, something fortuitous happened – he died. That may sound harsh but, even if he was nice to his wife and children and kind to small animals, to us he seemed a mean-spirited monster. A master called Bob Hawkins took over our math lessons, a warm-hearted man who clearly loved his subject, made up jokes about isosceles triangles, and treated us like equals. In the next school, ‘Fuzzy’ Wheatcroft, a man of similar character to Hawkins, took us through the whole gamut of math, including trigonometry and calculus, in such a way that I actually looked forward to his lessons. Then, of course, we were using slide rules and charts, since desk-top computers were at least thirty-five years away. I thought trigonometry a futile waste of time then. Why would I ever need to know all this stuff about tangents and cotangents? I had no idea that, eight or nine years later in the British Army, I’d need it to plot targets for my 81mm mortar platoon during a bout of terrorism in the Mid-East.
I’ll bet that would have astonished the very late Dirty Dai.