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Pins And Needles: The Numbers Game

...Numbers are different; there is not a synonym or figure of speech in the bunch. You not only can count them, you can count on them. Whether sprawled across a check, stuck on a birthday cake, flat up against the side of a house or hiding in an equation, numbers always mean the same thing...

Gloria MacKay loves words more than numbers, yet, when the need requires - the need being filling in a tax form - she is able to look numbers in the eye.

I could talk before I could walk. By the time I got up on two legs I was speaking in sentences, and wouldnít shut up. So the story goes. Once I learned how to read, other peopleís words suited me better than my own, so I quieted down. I became "the quiet one" in the family. The one "with her nose in a book."

Numbers never had the same charm. I showed off to the relatives, counting backwards to zero or forward by twos or doing takeaways in my head, but this was just a sideline. Numbers were fun, but it was words that danced in my head.

But not until my first year of high school did I turn my back on math. A big mistake. I blame my Algebra teacher, but he was typical of the times. Sacrificing a mere girl to hold the interest of a few very bright guys was a reasonable trade. All females needed to know about numbers was enough to go shopping.

I liked Algebra I. My old friends A, B, and C were still with me, wearing new hats, to be sure, but we were comfortable, until the morning the teacher called me up to his desk after class. Next semester, he divulged with a grin, I was being skipped ahead to Algebra III. Wasn't that great? My weak freshman voice suggested I couldnít take Algebra III until I had taken Algebra II, but he laughed and said "No problem, you are going to get credit for both. Isn't that great?"

It turned out he needed one more student in order to have an advanced class for the few nerdy boys who ate equations like popcorn and were already bored. None of the regular guys would do it, so there I sat, the only girl in the class. The first and only class I groped my way though in a perpetual fog. I came out with a B, but only because the teacher resembled his equationsóhe did not like to be proven wrong.

I, of course, proved to myself what everyone else already knew: girls were no good at math. I was a word person before I gave up on numbers and I was a word person after. A lot of years passed before I recognized that numbers hadnít given up on me. Like a murderer returning to the scene of the crime, I found myself skirting around the edges of arithmetic as though I had a vested interest in numbers. My dad was an accountant. Could that have some bearing?

After he died I found his little black book and opened it tentatively. Ohmygosh, it was full of numbers, but aha, not that kind. My father had listed the make and model of every car he ever owned, every license plate number, every time the price of postage increased. There were the telephone numbers and addresses of all the neighbors up and down the street for the last forty years, whether he knew them, or not. There was a page for sales tax increases, a notation about bus tokens and updates about the rise in the price of gasoline. Three gallons for buck! Poor dad.

Inhaling those dusty old numbers might have tweaked my DNA and made me more my fatherís daughter. Or, perhaps he passed a peculiar mutation down to me: a late-blooming, rather watered-down but persistent attraction to arithmetic. I do love the way words can drift through a conversation like cherry blossoms in the wind, and in the next breath slip off a tongue like a dart. But they can keep us up half the night stewing over all the things we should have said but just couldn't find the right words.

Numbers are different; there is not a synonym or figure of speech in the bunch. You not only can count them, you can count on them. Whether sprawled across a check, stuck on a birthday cake, flat up against the side of a house or hiding in an equation, numbers always mean the same thing. When you come up against digits you are expected to do something with them, and then to prove what you've done to some Number Nazi who isnít convinced you know what youíre doing. That is how I felt in Algebra III when I didnít know the difference between a quadratic equation and a polynomial fraction. I didnít know what I was doing, but it wasnít because I was a girl. It was because nobody told me.

These days when I nose up to numbers I remember my dad during income tax time, sitting erect at the kitchen table, still in his white shirt, looking his numbers straight in the eye. He had no computer. Nobody did. He didnít even use a calculator. Just pencil and paper and patience. When I was old enough he taught me how to do my taxes; I donít think it ever occurred to him (or to me) that I couldnít do it. I still do my taxes, although I am not quite like my dad. I do use a calculator and I donít have his patience, but, just like my dad, my bottom line has never been questioned. Not bad for a woman who still loves words best.


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