When our sixth-grade teacher announced we’d be doing story problems, I could hardly wait. Math with words? What could be better? I loved stories.
The problem on our homework sheet had something to do with speeding motorboats. I told my dad I didn’t get it. He said he could solve it but not in a way that would make sense to me. He said something about algebra. Then he drew a picture with boats and a clock face. There were arrows and something about mph.
“Do you get it now?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Where’s the story? Who’s in the boats? What does the lake look like?”
He laughed and explained that wasn’t the point. I’m pretty sure he mentioned x and y.
The rug had been pulled out from under me. I wish I could say I’d moved past it, but I still harbor a grudge against whoever linked story with math. I may not know a lot, but I know when a story is not a story.
It wouldn’t be that hard to welcome literary folks into that mathematical tent. Just hire English majors to write the copy for the math people. Create a real story that begs to be be solved without numbers in the answer, but you’d have to work the problem in order to write the story answer. Simply a shift in focus. Because I don’t know how to provide the particulars, I’ll just resort to blah-blah-blah for the facts that would generate the kind of x and y stuff that warms algebraic hearts.
On Monday at blah-blah-blah o’clock, Zoey boards a train in Chicago to visit her sister Lisa, a student at Macalester College blah-blah-blah miles away in St. Paul, MN. The train goes blah-blah-blah miles per hour, making a blah-blah-blah minute stop in Madison. Meanwhile Jack, a graphic designer at 3M, leaves his office at blah-blah-blah o’clock, driving down I-94 at blah-blah-blah miles per hour, to hear Randy Sabien play music at Dunn Brothers Coffee blah-blah-blah miles away on Grand Avenue at 8 PM. When Zoey’s train arrives, she and her sister plan to go there, too, for coffee and macaroons. The fates have already decided that Zoey and Jack are destined to fall in love if she arrives in time to drop her mitten at the counter and if Jack arrives in time to return it to her. Is this pivotal meeting possible? How could Randy, who loves macaroons, figure in?
Now that’s a story.
English majors would gladly work calculations to see if a rendezvous with love is in the cards. Upon finding it is, people who write effortlessly would appreciate the chance to describe the meeting. English majors know the value of two hands touching over a wool mitten. If it isn’t possible, they’d eagerly grapple with the near miss and the pending mystery that could include Randy.
English majors know we are all x looking for y. However long it takes.