Taking Stock


My favorite cartoon shows an important executive speaking into the phone, a cross expression on his face: “A billion is a thousand million?” he exclaims. “Why wasn’t I informed of this?” I sent a copy of the cartoon to my accountant, so that he would know exactly with whom he was dealing. Addition and subtraction are about as far as my arithmetic skills extend, and even there I’m not exactly reliable. Algebra makes my head hurt.

The funny thing is, I’m not ashamed to admit it, and that puts me in league with a lot of other people. While illiteracy is recognized by almost everyone as a major impediment to progress, financial stability, and self-esteem, innumeracy seems amusing. People even boast about it. Yet all of us use and rely on math every day, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Counting, matching, sorting, measuring-they are all mathematics. From making sure that each bowl of ice cream has a spoon to go with it, to stacking the shirts with the shirts and the pants with the pants, we use mathematical skills all day long. I once thought that math was beyond me, a galaxy to which I was denied entrance. But now, having seen the way it can be taught (particularly when it is done in an activity-based style, as it must be for the children I work with who have special needs), I know this universe has many doors, and that being good with numbers is only one of them.

I have been thinking about...

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About the Author

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.