How math went from mind-cloggingly easy to totally incomprehensible a few decades back.

by Bill Mehlman

When I was in second grade, my mother got terribly tired of hearing me moan about how, in November, I knew that 3 + 5 = 8. I'd heard it a thousand times. It was boring. So, without discussing it with me, she walked over to my school (very Ozzie and Harriet) and talked the principal into putting me in third grade... on the day I was to go back, unsuspecting, after Christmas vacation.

Before I even got my hat — the kind with the earflaps, I'm sure — off, the principal showed up and took me to another classroom. Once the formalities were concluded, and I took note of the way the older, bigger, tougher kids were looking at me ("Fresh meat"), the witch in charge began the day's math lesson.

"Johnny, please recite the six times table."

The only person in the room more clueless than auto-shop-bound Johnny was the stereotypical scrawny little four-eyed terror-filled runt who'd just been "skipped" into third grade. Times tables? A few minutes later, she told me to recite the three times table. She'd have had an equal chance of my reciting the names of the 206 bones in the human skeleton, or the Plantagenet kings. I've often wondered if that was the proximate cause of my brain shutting down when confronted with anything much beyond simple addition.

The peculiar thing is that I can add quickly and accurately, so long as I don't stop to think about it. The moment I slow down, however, I'm lost, and have to take it from the top. The significance of this eludes me, but the phenomenon is undeniable.