Wednesday, August 12, 2009

And with a perky grin, she said, "I'm a Mathematician"

The high school I went to was a magnet school of what was then just "Worthington High School", but is now either Thomas Worthington, or Worthington Kilbourne, or perhaps it is a magnet of both. I don't really care enough about the current zoning of Worthington schools to fact check that. It was called the Linworth Alternative Program, and unlike other "alternative" schools, its function was not to house the ruffians who couldn't be managed by meek schoolmarms, it housed instead the hippies, punks, budding activists, and artists that couldn't be managed by closed-minded state employees who made their cheddar parroting textbooks and catering to sports enthusiasts and young Republicans.

There were roughly 200 kids at the AP. Teachers dressed casually and were referred to by their first names. Class schedules were determined with a sort of voting process: teachers put available times for classes and how many students could be in each on a bulletin board, and interested students wrote their names by the classes they wanted to be in. Classes included the standards: history, math, english, sciences, but also classes with social/political themes: "Current Events", "Science and Society", and "World Trade", and differing points of view classes such as Canadian History. Phys Ed was free-form; you just had to log 40 hours of athletic stuff you had done on a piece of paper and hand it in - the main effect of this was to encourage students to play pick-up soccer games after school and marathon hacky-sack sessions during free periods.

Free periods were free, neither study hall nor lunch; you could listen to your Walkman, take a nap, read, whatever. There was no cafeteria, so when you wanted lunch, you went to the office and signed your name on the "sign-out" sheet, and wrote down where you were going, and went there. Most lockers did not have locks on them, and in my 4 years at the AP there were only 2 reports of theft, one of which was resolved (catty girls playing out some Kabuki theater drama).

If an upperclassman was a demonstrable expert on a subject, he or she could teach a high risk class on it. "High Risk" meaning that the student-teacher would have to report on the class' status to the staff a couple times to make sure it was being conducted reasonably well, and the students weren't blowing it off. If the class wasn't working, it could be cancelled, and students were advised not to sign up for it if they were in a crunch for credits. In my 4 years, I saw as many high-risk classes, none of which were cancelled. My best friend, Chris Barrett, taught a couple classes on JRR Tolkien, and had students read through "The Fellowship of the Ring" and discuss it in class. A fellow geek I met in a Libertarian meeting at OSU was going to co-teach a class with me where we would re-vamp the World Trade class to include computer scoring and the option to have countries war with each other. (Sadly, he bailed on me, and I thought the task too Herculean to do it alone.)

Once every year, students could take a week off for an interim project for a quarter credit. Your choice of study was open-ended, so long as you could defend it as being worthwhile. In my 4 years, I studied Asian culture, wrote a graphing program for the Apple // to plot "Y = mX + B" equations on a Cartesian plane, worked nights at Graceland Twin Cinemas (where I saw Rocky Horror for the first time from the comfort of the projectionist's booth), and returned to the theater to help the owner organize a database (in 1989, before anyone had heard of "SQL"). If you had enough credits your senior year, you could take the last half of the year off and go on "Walkabout", with the sole requirements of having it be something the staff agreed was worthwhile, and presenting what you had done at an open-house at the end of the year. An artist buddy did some claymation at a local studio, a science-geek buddy worked at a local research lab, students traveled overseas, mountain climbed, worked in machine shops, lots of varied and cool things that aren't coming to mind right now.

I was, unfortunately, unable to take a walkabout, but I took advantage of all the interims, and I played the pick-up soccer games, and I napped, read and listened to my Walkman, and I took "Science and Society", and "World Trade", "Current Events" twice, and "Canadian History". I also took the Tolkien class, and it took Chris Barrett a little while to forgive me for totally blowing it off. (Sorry, dude. What can I say? I was a lazy bastard.)

Time Marches On
So that was the AP. As far as public American high schools go, it was tops. We attracted a lot of math types, as the AP was a swirly-free school, and I blew possibly the best opportunity of my life by not engaging whole-heartedly with them. I was a year ahead of most students in math by taking Algebra in the 8th grade and Geometry my Freshman year, then Trig as a Sophomore, "Math Analysis" (read: pre-calc) as a Junior... and then I bailed. Late in my junior year I suffered from some depression and a lack of confidence in myself, some of which was fallout from the lifestyle of my parents, their sudden lack of support for me as their respective drug habits began to take over their lives.

But I must take credit for my own disinterest and laziness, my two most dependable companions. When I saw I had enough science/math credits to graduate, I stopped signing up for math and science classes. I didn't take Calculus, and I didn't take Physics - with all the math nerds I was friends with. With a friend tutoring other students in Calculus as a Sophomore, with one friend bound for Rice, another bound for Harvey Mudd, with my own aptitude for numbers and the mental discipline that naturally comes from organizing ideas into code. With all that, I chose laziness.

So now it's 20 years later. I spent a year and a half of that time freeloading and trying to convince myself I wasn't in high school any more, while my friends were enjoying their first year of college. 4 years I spent flipping pizza while my friends were getting their bachelor's degrees and beginning grad school. Pulling my head out of my ass, I became a tech-support guy at CompuServe for a couple of years while some people I knew were well onto their way to their Master's degree. Becoming more legitimate, I began a communications specialty and spent 6 and a half years at Sterling Commerce where I made enough money to buy a house and support a family.

For the last 6 years I've been paid to code, making decent money, and could consider myself truly successful. Except for the nagging fact that I never attended college, and two of my peers have gotten their PhD: my best friend Chris, and Megumi, the younger sister of my friend Daishi.

The Reunion
The AP has a reunion every 5 years, and all students who have ever attended the AP are welcome to attend. We had one 10 years ago, which I missed, one 5 years ago that I attended and enjoyed, and one last week. I skipped the reunion proper, but I went to the "adult night" at a local bar the night before. There I saw a man I worked with at my last job, who I apparently helped out of a jam by writing a WTN3270 macro, an ex-girlfriend that I had a very bad breakup with (like they all do at some point, she wanted to nail my still-beating heart to her door as a warning to others). Also at the bar were a few of the friends and peers I mentioned above. We downed some beers, hugged our old teachers, and talked about where life had taken us -- or rather, we shouted about it, as the music was overwhelmingly loud.

I had seen all these people after high school at different times, except for my ex, who either no longer wants me dead, or is hiding it well, and Megumi. I hadn't seen her in 20 years, and had no idea where life had taken her, so my first question to her, after asking her and her husband to sit with us, was "What are you doing these days?"

And with a perky grin, she said, "I'm a Mathematician."

Little Megumi, who may or may not have had a small crush on me 20 years ago, was all grown up, confident, and sporting the profession that I dreamed of as a small boy. I was happy for her, for her obvious success and happiness, and a little sad to be reminded of something in life that, for lack of ambition, I failed to accomplish. There was enough distraction that night that I didn't let it weigh me down. I happily busied myself with showing off my trophy wife, my child bride, to the barely suppressed shock and jealousy of my peers. Always a good show.

The future
Lately I have felt that I have reached my limit of interest in the world of IT. There is nothing new that I find exciting in my work, there is no discovery, no creative spark here any more. My days are filled more with navigating politics and bureaucracy than with technical problem-solving. I yearn for more interesting things to apply my brain to, and have taken to working on coding puzzles online, and reading popular math books in my downtime. And I often say to myself, "If only..."

I find comfort from this tragic line of thinking from my wife and daughters. If only I would have engaged with my fellow math nerds, gone to college, pursued pure mathematics, I would be.... childless? Maybe, maybe not. Unmarried? Possibly. But something would be missing. I never believed in destiny until I had Stacey. I knew my relationship with her mother was on the rocks before Stacey was born, but when I bonded with my daughter that first night, I knew that this was "right". It was meant to happen. When I first felt that I loved Liberty and wanted to propose to her, I felt the same feelings over again: Here is where I am supposed to be, here is where everything that came before was pointing me toward.

Had I not been a lazy fool for a time, I would not have had Stacey, nor met Liberty and Scout, and I would be worse off for it. The prestige of being accomplished, the thrill of discovery in the pure sciences would not have made up for it. There would be a void where they should be, and I would know it.

So here I am now, attached to the right spouse and children, with a brain eager to work on something more meaningful than my profession is throwing at me. What to do? How long before I could bridge the gap in knowledge to do research in mathematics? How dangerous would it be to try to make a living outside of corporate IT? Could I create new and interesting code and develop an online fanbase, and tour the world lecturing on the future of technology? Could I run a successful web hosting business? Internet bank? Can I survive by doing my day job like I mean it, and spend my off hours researching random pop-science and tinkering? Will my family stay strong if I take time away from them to do this?

I'm left with a lot of questions, a lot of fear, and the itch to accomplish, to create, to be relevant. But I love who I am, and I love who I'm with. I can survive being a nobody, an "also ran", if that is what I'm destined for, but my brain is ready for more. I don't know where I'm going yet, but I feel the pull of an eager spirit, and I'm going to follow it, and see where it leads.

Wish me luck.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. That pretty much echoes feelings I struggle with every day. It also mirrors the conclusions that I arrive at, that through all of my seeming 'failures' I have arrived right where I am supposed to be. That of course doesn't prevent me from thinking that I should be doing more, but it is a comfort to know that my meandering path has led me to a woman I consider to be my soulmate and two awesome and perfect children. No one said life would be easy, but if you play it right it can be rewarding. I also note for the record that many of my more 'successful' friends are extremely unhappy bastards, while I tend to bop through life singing a happy tune. So there's that.