I am fifteen years old, attending eighth grade. It’s 1985. My brother Daniel is born. Back to the Future will premiere later this year.
I’m still in the Special Education program, although I don’t have any Special Ed classes. My Special Ed handler looks at my grades, and my test results, and then works with me to figure out where I might need help and where I might benefit from more direct instruction. I really like having an adult speak with me and involve me in my education like this, instead of being shoved around the system like a bit of paperwork.
I find myself attracted to the Special Ed classes, because I feel much more relaxed in the smaller groups, and also because the work is so dang easy. I also enjoy having an adult engage me directly. I am content to slack off and remain in Special Ed, perhaps even hoping that I’ll get pulled out of a few regular classes and put into Special Education curriculum.
I’m a bit more socially developed, and it’s easier for adults to judge my intelligence by talking to me. My teacher is also armed with my standardized test scores, and she is too wise to fall for my slacking. She can see clearly that there is a massive disparity between my ability and my performance. That gap might have been muddled in those years when I had a bad home life, intense social dysfunction, and a nervous system full of drugs, but it’s pretty clear now that my scholastic failures have nothing to do with me finding the material to be too difficult.
The disparity is most pronounced in the area of mathematics, where my tests suggest I should be in advanced classes and my grades suggest that I am an imbecile. Part of this is due to the fact that standardized tests often lump “logic” in with math, which greatly elevates my mathematical performance, but most of the problem is due to that fact that math is taught through drills.
Before I got my own computer, I spent about half a year visiting my friend David and learning to program on his Texas Instruments computer. On that machine, you created graphics by using hexadecimal numbers, which represented binary patterns, which mapped directly to patterns of pixels. If you wanted to make a smiley face like this one:
You would do so by looking at the things in groups of four dots. For the first four, I want a zero, followed by three ones, to represent the empty space followed by three colored squares. In hex, that’s represented by a 7. The next four dots is three colored squares followed by an empty one, which is an E. Going down the image, it means this smiley is represented by the sequence: 7E81A581A599817E
When I was first learning about this, I had to keep consulting a chart in the manual that explained it. With practice, I found myself visiting the chart less often, until I had all of the required patterns memorized. Now I can construct these graphics in my head, a skill I will retain for the rest of my life. This means I can convert between the binary and hexadecimal number systems at will. I also understand binary numbers and binary counting. I didn’t set out to learn any of this. It all happened naturally, as I learned larger things. It’s simply a tool, like any other.
If I’d learned these graphics the way math is taught, then I would have spent three weeks doing worksheets and taking tests to establish and confirm my hexadecimal skills before I was allowed to put them to use or even know what the skill was for. It would have been endless drills with no discernible goal. It would be like learning to be a carpenter by spending six weeks driving nails into a lone piece of wood before anyone showed you that the nails could be used to assemble something.
As far as I can tell, math is boring, tedious, repetitive, and useless. It’s endless sheets of busywork with no goal or purpose.
A few people encourage me to seek the harder math courses, and to my ruin I ignore their advice. To me, math is “hard” because of how boring and time-consuming it is. Homework usually consists of doing the same problem forty times in a row! Then tomorrow, we will do forty more of the exact same problem, except with one extra digit of complexity thrown in. The pages march by, an endless procession of mind-numbing paperwork, a treadmill of uninteresting problems. I assume, incorrectly, that if a class is “harder” it will simply be the exact same lessons, except there will be even more homework and additional digits of complexity. (Which never makes any sense to me. Once I can multiply a pair of two-digit numbers I can also multiply twenty-digit numbers. Adding more digits just feels like belaboring the point to me.)
What I fail to understand is that the “harder” classes are where math becomes far more interesting. Instead of forty dull problems, they give you five interesting ones. Instead of pointless drills, you can begin to see how to use math as a tool. They finally give you a pile of two-by-fours and let you start nailing things together. I can put part of the blame on my terrible elementary school experience and my lack of trust in the system. I can put part of the blame on the shameful, idiotic way in which lower math is taught. I could try to pin some of the blame on people like Mrs. Grossman, who made the subject such a chore. But the truth is that most of the blame falls on me. I’m about to miss out on some really valuable and interesting learning because I’m afraid of a little work.
So despite the suggestions of the adults, I stick to the easy math classes, thus dooming myself to a slow purgatory of non-learning. I take “Basic Math” instead of “Algebra I”. Basic Math is just a repetition of what we learned in elementary school: Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and long division. Next year I’ll take “Elementary Algebra I” and “Elementary Algebra II”, which will dilute the already slow-paced introduction of “Algebra I” into a full year of tedium. This mistake will haunt me for the rest of my school career, and it won’t be until I’m close to graduation that I’ll even be aware of just how badly I screwed up. It won’t be my senior year that I will discover the extreme utility of trigonometry and curse myself for passing up the chance to learn it instead of simply sleepwalking my way through another algebra class.
There were a lot of blunders in my school career. A lot of people wronged me, mistreated me, neglected me, or hurt me with their incompetence. But this particular screwup was mine.
Here is a 13 part series where I talk about programming games, programming languages, and programming problems.
The Loot Lottery
What makes the gameplay of Borderlands so addictive for some, and what does that have to do with slot machines?
Raytracing is coming. Slowly. Eventually. What is it and what will it mean for game development?
A screencap comic that poked fun at videogames and the industry. The comic has ended, but there's plenty of archives for you to binge on.
Are Lootboxes Gambling?
Obviously they are. Right? Actually, is this another one of those sneaky hard-to-define things?