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Mathletics

Mathletics

. 8 min read

The 90s was a great time to be a kid who did well at tests. The Utah educational system seemed to be especially enthusiastic about standardized testing, though it seemed like they were fascinated by a new standard every month.  There were times when our classes were interrupted multiple times in the same week so that we could be tested.  The tests ranged from the mundane, like assessing our basic arithmetic skills or vocabulary, to the esoteric, like trying to evaluate our capacity for spatial reasoning.  Most of the time, I had no idea what the purpose of these tests were, if there was one at all, though on one occasion, I did.

As my classmates and I were squirming into our rigid plastic desks to make ourselves as comfortable as we could for the impending hour of algebra, our teacher informed us that thanks to our performance on the previous week’s test (as if we remembered which one that was), several of us had qualified for the school math team.  We were to report to the math coach after school for practice.  

I didn’t know the school had a math team.  I wasn’t entirely sure what a math team did.  I had never been good at sports.  In city league baseball, I wasn’t just picked last, I was put on the team made up of all the kids that the coaches refused to pick at all.  Being picked for the school team, even if it was the math team, was a foreign experience for me.  Of course, being a dutiful student, I did as I was told and reported to math practice.

The school math coach was exactly as you would imagine a school math coach to be.  If you can picture Orville Redenbacher in a Mister-Rogers-style zip-up cardigan, that is the image that greeted me after school that day.  He wasted no time in telling us that math team was serious business.  Every member of the math team was ranked based on their test score.  Our names were listed in order on the blackboard and we were divided up into teams of four.  The captain of the math team was one of the coach’s students, as were many of my other teammates.  They seemed to have a better idea of what was going on, whereas I felt like an outsider who had stumbled in by chance.  I was ranked number four, which meant that I had just barely managed a seat on the first team.  I was kind of excited about that, not so much because of the great honor of being a top mathlete, but because the third seat was filled by one of the only girls on the math team, and as a seventh grader, I was way more excited about sitting next to a cute girl than I was about math.

Unsurprisingly, the only thing the math team did was take math tests.  Math competitions basically consisted of a bunch of teams from different schools driving to a single location and taking a math test in close proximity.  Not exactly the most riveting competition, since the teams didn’t really even interact with each other.  Still, math team was serious business, so for weeks, we studied for the upcoming regional math competition.

The regional competition was held in a large, windowless room somewhere in Orem.  We discovered upon arriving that competitive interscholastic mathematics, as with actual sports, was really more of a high school thing.  Seventh and eighth graders were permitted to attend for the experience, but despite the fact that all of us were in the advanced math class for our grade, we were still several years away from learning most of the material that would be on the test.  So if being the youngest kid in a windowless room full of strangers and being forced to take a math test weren’t discouraging enough, I also had to look forward to being tested on things I knew nothing about.  

During the test itself, everyone on the team was split up and seated randomly throughout the room.  I presume this was to discourage cheating, though it did make me wonder what the point of being on a team was if this was all we ever did.  Sure enough, most of the questions were far above our grade level, though our after-school practice gave me at least a vague idea of how to do some of it.  There were also quite a few questions that were nothing more than complicated geometry, which didn’t require advanced math skills as much as meticulous attention to detail.

Fortunately for all of us (especially the spectators), the last section of the competition wasn’t another test.  Instead, the top ten mathletes from the competition would face off against one another for a chance at the top spot.  Two finalists would be shown a math problem.  The first to answer correctly would move on, while the other would be eliminated.  Not exactly triple overtime at the Stanley Cup, but it was certainly the most exciting math-related event I’d ever seen…

...and somehow I was number seven.

Sadly, this is not the inspiring tale of how a plucky seventh grader achieved the greatest upset in the history of competitive math.  I was instantly eliminated as soon as I faced off against one of the high schoolers.  Still, I suppose it was kind of exciting to see a kid who wasn’t expected to have a chance make it so far in the competition, and no one was more excited than our math coach.  He could barely contain himself.  To celebrate, he was taking us out to the fanciest place he could think of:  Chuck-A-Rama.

The coach continued to revel in our victory throughout our celebratory lunch.  We were champions, and deserved the best.  The food was on the school’s dime, so we could eat as much as we wanted.  Of course, that’s just kind of how Chuck-A-Rama works, but that didn’t really matter.  Nothing could stop his triumphant jubilance.  Eavesdroppers could have been forgiven for thinking that we’d just returned from sacking Rome rather than from taking a math test.  

Was this what it was like to be a high school athlete?

Just to be clear, while there were plenty of weird things about going to school in Utah county, it was not a mirror universe where nerds sat atop the social hierarchy and math skills brought you status and popularity.  Monday morning when I returned to school, no one cared how well I had done on a voluntary math test the week before.  I was once again that quiet kid who sat at the back of the class and occasionally embarrassed himself while trying to make a witty comment.

That week at math practice, the rankings on the chalkboard had changed.  My name was now at the top of the list, flanked on either side by a large number one and the words “Team Captain.”  The former captain had been unceremoniously bumped down to number two.  The list was also somewhat shorter, as some of the lower-ranked members had stopped coming weeks ago, though the coach hadn’t bemoaned their departure.  Moreover, the state math finals were coming up at the end of the year, and we all had to be at the top of our game.  There was no room for dead weight on the math team.

By an unlikely coincidence, the day of the state math finals was on the same day as the school’s end-of-year band concert.  While I was pretty sure that my absence from the concert wouldn’t affect my grade, I was much more excited about music than I was about math.  Besides, after going through the full experience of a major math competition, I wasn’t exactly heartbroken to miss out on another one.  Additionally, no state math competition meant that there was no reason to spend my afternoons practicing math.  Without a second thought, I stopped going to math practice, happily joining the ranks of the other quitters.

I wasn’t really close friends with anyone else on the math team, so it was over a month after I’d dropped out when I ran into the former team captain in the hallway.

“Hey, you haven’t been to practice in a few weeks.  What’s going on?”

“Oh,”  I replied, “I’ve got a band concert on the same day as the state math thing, so I can’t go anyway.”

“Oh.”  A look of bewilderment came over his face.  I politely said goodbye and headed off to my next class.  

A few days later, I was in gym class when the teacher called me aside.  I was needed in the hallway.  Not the principal’s office or the counselor’s office, but the hallway.  Somewhat confused, I walked across the polished wood floor toward the gym entrance.

Springville Middle School was a weird building, the gym in particular.  It was an old Spanish revival style building built around the same time as the adjacent Springville Art Museum.  Instead of bleachers, the gym had a second story mezzanine for viewing basketball games and other events.  At the entrance was a large foyer, tiled with polished terracotta with two curving staircases leading to the upper level.  The overall effect was something between the entrance to an inquisitorial palace and the staircase from the end of Scarface where Tony Montana meets his end.  And there, standing in the middle of that cavernous hall, silhouetted against the afternoon light, was the math coach.

Even in a less imposing setting, this would have been an intimidating confrontation.  I was a fairly small kid so the lanky math coach towered over me.  I was also still wearing my gym clothes, which made me feel like I was standing in the hallway half naked.  For a moment, he just stood there and scowled at me.  Then he spoke.

“Imagine my surprise today when I heard that the captain of the math team, our star player, was QUITTING!”

He didn’t quite manage to make it through a full sentence before his attempt at restrained disappointment gave way to all-out screaming.

“Our team has a shot at finally taking the state math competition, and you’re QUITTING!?”

He hadn’t actually asked me a question, but the awkward pause made me feel like I should say something.

“Yep.”

The coach was now visibly seething and shouting at the top of his lungs.  “How would the Utah Jazz feel if Karl Malone quit the team right before the playoffs!?”  The mid 90s was the peak of Karl Malone’s career.  One hand, that meant that even I got the reference.  On the other hand, that made the comparison all the more preposterous.  I would be compared to Karl Malone several more times during that conversation.  

Like I said, I was never really on a school sports team, so I can’t really speak to that experience, but if it’s half as intense as math team, maybe being a high school sports hero wasn’t as great as it seemed.

After about half an hour of being screamed at by a grown-ass adult, the bell rang.  I was still in my gym uniform, so I had to go change before my next class.  He left in a huff and I hurried off to get ready for my next class.  I somehow managed to remain calm and unmoved throughout the whole exchange.  Maybe it was the sheer absurdity of the situation that undermined his ability to bully me into submission.  Having failed at that approach, he’d make two more attempts to convince me in the coming weeks, once trying to guilt me and once trying to bribe me, but it was too late.  I’d left the fast-paced life of competitive math behind forever.

Like a lot of things I did in school, my test taking skills weren’t particularly useful for anything outside of taking tests.  I still find myself having to take tests for jobs occasionally, but I generally find them irritating.  They rarely have much to do with the actual job.  I suppose few of the tests I took as a kid really meant anything, either.

As for my days as a competitive mathlete, it never impacted my life again after that year, though it did prove to be somewhat of an inconvenience to my younger sister several years later.  She ended up in the math coach’s algebra class, and upon calling her last name on the first day of school he glared at her.

“Are you Peter’s sister?”

After nervously confirming his suspicions, she and her classmates were told to gather round to hear the cautionary tale of the greatest math team the school had ever known and its star player who could have had it all, but threw it all away.

(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)