‘English is mathematics.’ Well, that’s what I always tell my students, many of whom are top-notch engineers who have no problems calculating in their heads that an object starting from rest with a constant angular acceleration of 2.0 rad/s2 will reach an angular velocity of 1.59 rev/s after 5.0 seconds. These very same eggheads, however, will come unstuck when challenged to explain the difference between “a journey” and “a trip”. Or between their “fingers” and their “toes”, for that matter. ‘How many fingers have you got?’ is a great Plan B to have up your sleeve for a rainy day, with answers invariably ranging from eight to twenty, via ten and eighteen, depending on whether your calculations include thumbs (dedos gordos = “fat fingers”) and/or toes (dedos de pie = “foot fingers”). And you can only imagine the looks on my poor students’ faces when I follow this discussion up with, ‘So how many fish fingers do you have in your freezer, Fernando?’. But I digress...
Fortunately, writing a simple mathematical equation on the whiteboard is all it takes to get everybody back on track:
As my students open their notebooks enthusiastically and jot the equation down even more enthusiastically, everything miraculously falls into place. Now everyone can see that the “journey” is the boring yet necessary part of the trip:
By the same token, it follows that the “visit” is the only reason we took that bleeding plane in the first place:
Now that we are all on the same wavelength, the rest of the class is a breeze, and the hour flies by. Along the way, I’ll throw in a few “percentage discussions” because these always help to clarify concepts with my fellow maths lovers:
‘So, if I say to you, “It may rain this afternoon”, is it going to rain, Luis?’
‘Exactly! So, what are the chances of it actually raining, María? Mathematically speaking, I mean.’
‘Is that what Meteoblue says?’
‘Never mind. And what if I say, “It may well rain this afternoon”? Am I increasing or decreasing the probabilities, Unai?’
Well, I won’t bore you with the entire transcript but, suffice to say, we get there eventually:
Yet another victory for common sense, I’m sure you’ll agree. That said, the last thing I want is for my students to relax too much, so the other day, I decided it was time to ruffle a few feathers:
‘Can anybody complete this saying?’ I asked. Unsurprisingly, everybody fell into my little mousetrap by agreeing that, “When the cat’s away, the mice will dance” – because that’s what all Spanish mice do, apparently. Cuando el gato no está, los ratones bailan. Little did it matter that “dance” rhymes terribly with “away”; for most speakers of English, at least. Nor did my underlining “away” and repeating, ‘When the cat’s aWAY... When the cat’s aWAY...’ make a scrap of difference to the jury’s verdict.
‘English is music!’ I berated my students. ‘When the cat’s aWAY, the mice will PLAY! Not dance, for heaven’s sake! Since when did “dance” rhyme with “away”?’ On and on I went. But nobody was listening to me.
‘English is music? But didn’t you say English is mathematics?’
‘Yes, that’s right, Elena. English is many things,’ I went on, fully aware that I had just made a dangerous addition to our cosy equation:
‘OK, what about this one?’ I said, ploughing on as if my revelation that mathematics and music are one and the same thing were no big deal:
Opinion was divided on this one. After all, grass can be fresh, long and green, can’t it? Indeed, everybody agreed that all three options were perfectly valid, so I tried underlining “grass” and repeating, ‘The GRass is always... The GRass is always...’ But to no avail.
‘English is poetry too!’ I declared, throwing all caution to the winds. ‘The GRass is always GReener on the other side. Perhaps it’s fresher and longer too, but who cares?’
The uproar that ensued had to be seen to be believed, so you’ll have to take my word for it, I’m afraid.
‘But English is poetry, or English is music?’
‘And mathematics also?’
‘And mathematics as well, Laura.’
One of the advantages of speaking English better than anybody else in the room is that I win all the arguments. And this one was no exception.
‘You see, English can be anything you want it to be,’ I explain.
‘It’s maths, it’s music, it’s poetry.
It’s the first, the last, my everything!’
And talking of Barry White, I really can’t think of a better note on which to finish, so let’s leave it here, shall we? Thanks for reading, and see you next month, I hope.
It was one of those breaks. Too short to do anything or go anywhere, yet too long to do nothing or go nowhere without feeling that you had wasted a golden opportunity to do something or go somewhere.
Colin’s day was full of mini breaks like these, ranging from 10 minutes to 20 minutes in theory, which meant 2 minutes to 12 minutes in practice, as he always lost eight valuable minutes – nearly 500 seconds! – cleaning his whiteboard, gathering his things and thoughts, and seeing off the last lingering students. Haven’t you got a home to go to? he used to think to himself, until it eventually dawned on him that this was precisely their problem and, for all his woes, it was reassuring to know that maybe he wasn’t so badly-off after all. Well, that was the theory. In practice, of course, he was far far worse-off than anybody else in the whole bloody looniverse, even if he was the only person who actually realised this.
So what could he do with his 12 minutes? Find a boss and have a quick “one-minute chat”? Did he really look that desperate for somebody to talk to? Or listen to, rather. How about boiling three eggs, one after the other, just for the hell of it? Why was everybody so obsessed with boiling eggs, anyway? The last person Colin had ever actually seen boil an egg was Granny, and that was about 30 years ago. What ever came of that egg? he wondered. In any case, by the time he’d tracked down three eggs, a saucepan, some water and a cooker, his 12 minutes would be up.
dayrealing, Chapter 20, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”