I was appalled to hear that President Ramaphosa had bestowed a national order on none other than William Smith, a man with a mastery of a subject that is beyond inhumane. It was like hearing that the Marquis de Sade had been awarded a medal for services to sadism, for what is the instruction of mathematics if not an exercise in the infliction of pain on others?
Smith deserves to be made an example of, and not in the way Ramaphosa had in mind when he placed the Order of the Baobab around the old man’s neck – a neck that belongs in a pair of stocks, no less. We who were traumatised by maths as children should be able to pelt him with wrong answers to simple equations until he begs for mercy.
Maths is cruel. There is no other way of looking at it. Oh, sure, if you understand how it works, perhaps it seems quite benign. Useful, even. But if it makes about as much sense as German spoken backwards, then it is utterly barbaric to force children to learn it. For many of us, maths is not a subject that can be learnt. I know people will think that I am drunk or mad, but I am only a little bit, and I know that maths cannot be learnt in the same way that, say, Spanish or the offside rule in soccer can be learnt.
There is a numbers gland in the brain that not everyone is born with. I don’t have one. And it’s not a gland that can develop later in life, either. You either have it or you don’t.
My father did not understand this, even though he is far from stupid. He is very bright, in fact. He worked as a structural engineer for many years. Yet he is unable to comprehend that there are some people who do not have the gland that makes it possible to grasp maths.
The fact that I was one of these people was a source of tremendous frustration and, I imagine, disappointment. I clearly remember my parents discussing my maths mark in high school.
“We’re going to have to send him for extra maths,” said my mother, who was also very smart, and yet not smart enough to understand that eighteen hours of extra maths a day, seven days a week, would do little more than nudge my average into double figures and possibly turn me into a teenage heroin addict.
“How do you get nine percent for maths?” my father would shout, nostrils flaring, eyes big and wild. I thought nine was rather good considering that I had no gland.
He would sit with me and help with my homework. By help I mean he would tug at his beard and tear at his hair and stand up and sit down and shout, “Why? Why can’t you see it? It’s perfectly simple!” It didn’t seem the right time to tell him about the gland. I didn’t want him thinking I was mentally deformed which, in later years, I realised that’s exactly what he thought.
William Smith represents my father. And many other fathers around the world who have shouted at their children until they wept. Yes, I shed a few tears. I can’t remember if it was because he was yelling at me or because I felt like a failure or because I couldn’t go out and smoke paw-paw stems with my friend down the road.
It wasn’t maths that scarred me. Maths doesn’t care if I understand it. It just sits there waiting to be used, like the condom in my wallet. Unlike my condom, maths doesn’t expire.
I was brutalised by people trying to force maths down my throat. People who should have known better. People like William Smith and my father and every maths teacher I ever had.
The sight of Smith receiving his award from the president unleashed a flood of memories and my post-traumatic stress disorder kicked in. Ted found me unresponsive on the floor, curled up like a wounded pangolin. He ran up a crude Tafel lager drip using kitchen utensils and an old syringe he found in the street. It wasn’t ideal but it did the trick.