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Could revisiting your best school subject help to calm a busy mind?

Sydney Morning Herald logoSydney Morning Herald 9/09/2018 Mary Ward
My maths skills returned, slowly but surely. And it felt great. © Getty Images My maths skills returned, slowly but surely. And it felt great.

During their time at high school, people often reveal talents that come to define their adolescent identities. Maths was mine. Years later, seeking something to ground myself in, I bought a textbook, borrowed a calculator and re-attempted the year 11 maths course.

It is something of a trend in the wellness industry to encourage people to connect with their childhood selves and a simpler time in their lives. Manhattan execs fork out thousands of dollars to attend lunchtime playgroups. Art studios offer BYO finger-painting classes (the BYO is for wine; you must supply your own fingers).

Working through Jim Coroneos' creatively titled 3 Unit Course: A Higher School Certificate Course in Mathematics Year 11, I came to understand the appeal of returning to what brought us happiness as a child: when what we "wanted to be" when we grew up was a one-word job description and everyone seemed to progress through life's milestones at roughly the same rate.

My skills returned, slowly but surely. There were some stumbles (financial maths will never be my strength), but, for the most part, the printed answers at the back of the book matched the scrawl on the grid paper in front of me. And it felt great.

I realised I had missed maths homework. I had missed drawing up my page: a margin on the top and left side, divided into two columns. I had missed overusing the three-dotted symbol for "therefore", nudging the limit of how insufferably pleased I can be with myself. I had missed earning the feeling of total comprehension; a realm in which everything made sense, where everything added up.

Looking back, high school maths was my own nerdy teenage meditation program. I understood maths, which I knew then and know now is a privilege. And if I didn't understand, the worked example held the answers. In exams, I typed numbers into my calculator as I had hundreds of times before, feeling calmed when they did what I expected.

In maths, there is something called a real solution. Real solutions are made up of real numbers, which are basically all of the numbers most people will ever need to consider. Five is a real number. Negative three million is a real number. The square root of 47 is a real number. Everyone's favourite, 3.14159…? A real number.

For most of high school maths, you are taught real solutions are the only solutions. You are taught to ignore any other results; they don't matter, they will not be your final result.

Then, if you take the highest year 12 course, they throw you a curveball. Those results you were ignoring? They do matter; they can be your final result. Fittingly, those results are called "complex numbers". All of a sudden, equations you thought you understood have secret, harder, solutions you never knew existed.

Part of the joy of going back to the year 11 textbook is pretending those extra results don't exist. But, of course, they do. All I can do is remind myself that, although these extra results are unexpected, and more challenging, they are manageable. If I continue working through the syllabus, I will eventually confront them.

A common complaint by teenagers is that they "will never need" maths once they leave school. Although I, previously established as a nerd, would never have said those words, I suppose I expected them to be true: I studied humanities for six years at university, not once needing to recall the cosine rule. Similarly, working in media, there has been little demand for my ability to graph a logarithm.

But I've realised I do need maths. I need the process, the precision, the difficulty and the distraction. I need to know I can handle the curveballs. And I need to show my working out. If only to prove to myself that I can, indeed, work things out.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale September 2.

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