On Your Marks

Math quartet edges reporter in arithmetic challenge

May 2, 2012 

If a train leaves Boston at midnight traveling south at 100 mph, please let it run me over.

It’s the feeling we’ve all had in math class – some at more advanced levels than others – along the way. The neuron nest not firing. Face curdled like you just ate your way out of a lemon factory. Run my brain through an ice cream churn and it wouldn’t cramp this much.

Tate Daniels, Jonathan Habbick, Brian Liu and Jacob Wacaster haven’t been there yet. They’re the Mathcounts squad at Fort Mill Middle School. In a given day these kids solve more problems than a drive-thru psychiatry clinic. If the greatest threat to human civilization were unbalanced equations and common denominators, Marvel would make comic books about these four.

Their geography could use a little work. Daniels and Liu meet me at the front office and promptly point in opposite directions. Both laugh.

“That’s one of our tactics,” Daniels said.

He’s the team spokesman, wit to spare and hardly bothered by a past-prime newspaper man heading back to his square roots. I should mention that I, too, am a Fort Mill Middle alum. Or maybe I shouldn’t. I’d name my teachers if they wouldn’t need witness protection afterward.

Naomi Elkin teaches algebra now. She’s also the headset-and-clipboard leader behind the team that won its regional event in February among 10 schools and almost 100 students from York and Lancaster counties, then placed third at state in March. No team in the almost quarter century of the Catawba Chapter region ever scored so high.

Our contest starts with 20 questions in 20 minutes. I eyeball Liu, individual champ at the regional and fourth at state, a tiebreaker short of advancing to nationals. He’s the one you want designing your suspension bridge. The one given the nastiest, hairiest team round problem to work solo while teammates tackle the remaining nine. I’m wondering whether I brought an abacus to a graphing calculator fight.

It wasn’t always this way. To this day I contend that I submitted a flawless AP Calculus exam, after which I totaled a whopping zero math courses in college. I’ve been suffering from arithmetic atrophy ever since.

My saving grace?

They’ve got brains and backpack loads of practice, but I’ve got life experience. I’ve actually baked (quarter teaspoons per quart of water), dealt cards (pulling a certain suit) and rolled dice (face-up probability). I smoked those questions.

Then came the math I’m pretty sure hadn’t been invented when I took this course. Relatively prime integers in a 10 to 30 set, with 28? The largest of a three consecutive positive integer set sum palindrome less than 220? Some operation symbol that looks like an “s” sitting on a still pond?

I’m half certain I remember two algebraic truths, so I mash every question through them like a preschooler who won’t take square-peg-round-hole for an answer. I’m conjuring up equations Pythagoras himself couldn’t mend. I tally 10 of 20 possible points which is, mathematically speaking, atrocious.

“If you had all day, you could get them all,” said Elkin, who isn’t lying.

It’s not so much the questions but the pace of having to answer them. Which is why Mathcounts contests turn on a problem or two, and why strategies like splitting group round questions is key. Our next two rounds are “calculator active,” with two problems and six minutes to answer them apiece.

Elkin resets the Smart Board timer. It’s intimidating. We didn’t have Smart Boards. Just big dumb chalkboards long since left in their own eraser dust. I, too, feel the way of the dinosaurs coming when I dig deep and pull one last hurrah from my bag of tricks.

Counting double now, I find my algo-rhythm. I figure the pre-tax price of a $211.86 bike. I list every multiple of 150 through 4,000 and count them. I hem in a trapezoid bounded by four line equations, shade it and nail the area with a well-placed guess. It’s down to one question to draw within inches of a win.

Better make it cubic feet. I need the weight of water in a cylindrical tank. I plug through a volume equation that doesn’t exist in nature and turn to multiply it by the 62.4-pound water weight when time elapses. I see Elkin grading an earlier round in the corner. She seems a lovely woman, but the next time she offers me partial credit will be the first. She smiles.

“You actually did really well,” wait for it. Wait for it. “Considering.”

It’s official. If we’re a tax office, they’re the ones filing statements while I costume up and sign dance the highway turnoff. It’s a close shave for kids who still think “close shave” is just a turn of phrase, but I’m beaten.

I try to hide my grade from Wacaster. He’s that guy who plays cool, says the best parts of Mathcounts are days off from school, then lingers over the only question he missed. May as well photocopy the answer key, this kid.

On a given worksheet any team member can carry the outfit. At the region event, six of the top 11 overall were Yellow Jackets, meaning members who don’t even make the team score could anchor squads for other schools. Habbick figures “everybody can do math,” but not like this.

Deep down he knows it, which is why he loves his mom but doesn’t want to be an algebra teacher like her. Then he’d be responsible for other people getting the answers.

With engineers and math teachers at home, not a team member admits to being smarter than his parents. Which I just assumed was the main purpose of middle school. I so want to give these kids grief. But their egos are double checked, heads as balanced as single variable equations. They talk about their season as a leg up heading into high school work. About the innumerable ways they might make careers of math.

“Right now it’s only eighth grade so it’s more so fun,” Habbick said. “You could think about it, but there’s so many possibilities.”

I pray, for all our sakes, that my performance never becomes one.

On Your Marks Scoreboard

Competition: Fort Mill Middle School Mathcounts team, Tate Daniels, Jonathan Habbick, Brian Liu and Jacob Wacaster

Contest: Three rounds of timed math questions, with one point for each correct answer in the first and double in the final two

Score: I score 16 points total out of a possible 28, compared to an average team score of 19.25. Wacaster leads all scorers with 27 points.

On Your Marks is a monthly column where reporter John Marks takes on competition from the greater Lake Wylie and Fort Mill areas, challenging them in their field of expertise and profiling what makes them special. Check out past On Your Marks columns at lakewyliepilot.com. For ideas on who you think Marks should challenge next, email jmarks@lakewyliepilot.com.

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