Friday, October 10, 2014

When Perfect Isn't Good Enough

It's probably an odd thing to say on a blog from a writer, a blog that often deals with writing, and from someone who teaches creative writing, but I was a math person when I was a kid. Technically, I suppose I still am, but I loved math when I was a kid. I did math for fun when I was a kid. Seriously. I loved math and I loved to read; I suppose that was an odd combination. People seem to think so, anyway. At any rate, I gave up on math a long time ago. It all started with geometry.

Don't get me wrong, I was good at geometry, excellent, actually, but I'll get to that in a moment. I was good at it; I just hated it. To be fair to Geometry, it wasn't Geometry's fault that I hated it. No, that honor goes to the teacher who made us memorize all the theorems and postulates by chapter notation. So, on a test, if we had to do a proof (and you always had to do proofs, because that's what geometry is), and we needed to use a particular theorem, we had to know it as, for instance, Theorem 16.2 and, then, quote the theorem. But the 16.2 part was completely arbitrary based on the book we were using, and it kind of pissed me off that we had to know that when it was completely not useful once we were out of the class.

Also, I hated doing problems that could potentially take up an entire sheet of paper.

But I was good at it. As in, I had the highest grade in the class good at it, and I didn't even pay attention. Reading was strictly forbidden during my geometry class. The teacher routinely had a stack of books she'd taken away from students for reading during class, but she let me read. I suppose when you have a student whose carrying 106% that it might be safer just to let him read. Did I mention that this was honors geometry? Yeah, it was.

There are two things you need to know:
1. Every test had a couple of bonus problems on it. [Yes, I always did the bonus problems. Not because I wanted the points, but because I couldn't make myself leave the problems blank.]
2. Along with the grade for the specific test, when we got the tests back, our overall grade was also on the test. Actually, it was our grade before the test and after the test so that we could see how the test had affected our grades.

I say every test had bonus problems, but there was one that didn't. I didn't think it was significant at the time. Not while I was taking the test, at any rate. However, I didn't feel that way about it when I got the test back. See, the 100% I'd made on the test had lowered my grade in the class. Yeah, you heard me; the perfect score lowered my grade. I sat there and stared at that for a while being kind of weirded out by it. Then, I did the math. You know, just to be sure I was seeing what I was seeing even though I knew that I was. Yes, the 100% lowered my grade.

There's just something inherently not right about that. It didn't matter from any kind of practical standpoint, but my sense of justice was... It wasn't happy with the situation. My teacher thought it was funny. And it is funny, but, as you can see, it made an impression on me. And it's a bit of a life lesson: There are times when you can do everything right, do a perfect job, and it will hurt your score. So to speak. You did all you could do, and it was all the right stuff to do, but it still has a negative impact.

I suppose the way to look at that is this:
Suppose you had done nothing. Or that you had done the wrong thing. The negative impact would have been so much greater. So it becomes all about doing the most you can to keep the negative results at a minimum. I guess, in some situations, that's the best you can hope for.

The thing that has me thinking about this is that my daughter is going through the same sort of thing right now in Spanish. She has something like 110% in the class (or 112% (something ridiculous, at any rate)) and, recently, she turned something in on which she only got 105%. Yes, it brought her grade down. She was very upset. There were a lot of "It's not fair!"s thrown around. I did explain it to her and told her my geometry story (which made her feel slightly better since it had happened to someone else), but it didn't really keep her from seething about it for a while. It just made her more determined to get her grade back up to where it was.

She has a good attitude about those things. I mean, she has the right attitude in how to deal with them. Instead of getting depressed or saying "what's the point," she's using it as motivation. That's how you respond to the inequities in life, let them inspire you to rise higher.


  1. I'd heard about getting higher than a hundred percent, but never heard it explained how that worked. Sorry, that is just nuts. No, we didn't have that when I went to school. You could get extra points, but it didn't raise the total over a hundred percent.

  2. I read, "only got 105" and chuckled. I'm glad she's using the situation as motivation. Good for her, and it shows what a great dad you are too.


  3. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, huh?

    I was good in math but not great, but had a similar situation in college. I was in a Cinema Critique course, watched every movie but couldn't make myself stay for the boring discussion/teaching session afterward. Not ever. I still aced the class. Sometimes we just have a knack for things...

  4. Alex: I think whether you can make more than 100% is dependent upon the teacher, not the time period. The point of it was that the class was hard and without the bonus problems many of the students wouldn't have been able to pass.

    Elsie: She's nothing if not determined. In everything she does.

    Lexa: Kind of like getting on As on book reports and stuff without reading the books?

  5. That is exactly why I hated geometry. What, people can't look up formulas when they're making these proofs in the "real world"? And I'm totally not surprised that you were one of those kids that got A++'s in school.

    Keep going for that 110%.

  6. I hope she can regain a extra awesome grade. As if anything over 100% isn't already extra awesome, but yeah it's the principal of the thing.

    Now excuse me as I run for the hills after having read the word geometry.

  7. Sounds like your daughter has the right attitude.

    Our system was the same as Alex's. I could get bonus points on tests in my AP classes, but my final grade would never be higher than a 100% (we could earn prizes and such, though) and the point system was such that you didn't have kids getting over a 4.0 grade point average. I think today's system (at least the one my stepkids are subject to) is a little crazy because you've got kids competing for college and nowadays AP classes count for extra (they didn't in my day), so a kid can have something like a 4.3 out of 4 GPA if they do well in their AP classes. So now the kid with the 4.0 isn't good enough. It puts a lot of pressure on some students. I kind of think the AP classes should be on that same 4.0 system, the bonus/reward simply being that AP students can take a test that will get them college credit while the kids in the regular classes can't.

    But then I guess you'd have arguments about valedictorians and such because a kid who took mostly electives and got As could get the same GPA as someone who took all AP courses. Not sure how our school got around that kind of thing.

  8. It really doesn't seem fair! I never had that problem in school. I hated math in all it's forms and there didn't seem to be a teacher in the school who could make it clear to me. I got my good grades in English and Art classes. I was really good in those classes, but by no means the best....and I've never heard of getting more than 100% in a class.
    It's good that you experienced the same situation that your daughter did, you can definitely relate to her frustration!

  9. Life's not always fair but you can't give up because of that. Giving up is unfair to oneself and others who are affected by ones actions.

    Like you did I used to enjoy doing math just for fun. Trigonometry is what killed my interest--or I guess having one of the worst teachers in the world is really what did it. In that senior class I really started doing a lot more writing.

    We didn't have honors classes where I went to school. Probably didn't have enough honorable students to fill them.

    Wrote By Rote

  10. Jeanne: Well, back in the 80s it was actually kind of hard to just look that stuff up. It's not like that anymore. None of my kids have been required to memorize any of that stuff.

    Jean: Oh, she has her Spanish grade back to 112% at this point.

    Jessica: Most schools have no way of dealing with that stuff, thus a kid can go through the drama/music program at my son's high school, which accounts for about 2/3 of the classes over 4 years, and come out with near a 4.0 after having almost no academic classes.

    I don't know about the schools here, but AP classes didn't give extra weight, only honors classes, because they were accelerated (they covered about twice the material as the regular classes). Of course, at my school, the AP classes were a branch of the honors classes.

    Eva: I think it really just depends on how the teacher structures the class.

    Lee: A bad teacher can kill a lot of things, unfortunately. Of course, a great teacher can awaken things, too.

    I went to a different kind of school (for the time period), to say the least.

  11. So you're a family of supergeniuses, too?

    I feel like I let myself down when I was younger; I should've paid more attention in school and really learned stuff instead of writing it all off as boring and easy. For a long time I blamed my teachers for not making it more interesting and I suppose they could've done that, but when I look back, I realize I left a lot of education on the table. I am fascinated by math and science, now, but it has to be just a hobby for me. I sometimes wonder what life would've been like if I'd been an astrophysicist.

  12. I really shouldn't have tried to read a maths type blog post on a Sunday night.Actually, I should never read maths based blog post - takes me back to school when I found maths so hard (still do!)

  13. Math for fun? No way. I was lucky to scrape by with a D+

  14. Math was always by far my best subject - even better than music. It just wasn't as much fun.

  15. Briane: You mean like that coyote? Probably like that, yeah.

    The thing about school for me is that I never really put any effort into it. I wish I had had someone to tell me that I should actually put something into what I was doing.

    Suzanne: There's no actual math in the post, though. I mean, it's not like I started tossing around postulates, which, I suppose, I could have.

    dolorah: Yeah, I was a... weird kid.

    TAS: I thought math was a lot of fun until I hit Geometry.

  16. That would have driven me nuts. I was a perfectionist, too, had good grades. I didn't have any teachers who gave us the additional over 100%. Probably for the best.

  17. Shannon: It's just kind of a surreal experience, in all actuality.