Jun 9, 2010

No Head for Figures

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if I stand behind, beside or in the general vicinity of a politician during a media conference - I will end up on the TV news that night looking a bit bored.

You know I've TRIED to look more like a Proper Serious Journalist but it just seems to come across as annoyed or confused. Don't know why I ever thought I could succeed in the acting game either, when I can't even convincingly portray a reporter.

The noticeable cranky-faced-ness has been a particular problem this week due to the Queensland Budget. I tell you what, if nothing else, Budget Week has reinforced my absolute lack of talent for anything involving numbers.

Wait - I tell a lie. I am quite good at percentages. Ten years of scouring Myer stocktake sale tables does wonders for your ability to quickly work out the impact of a 25%, 50% or (gasp!) 75%-off sign.

But as for everything else - goodness. I did reasonably well in Economics at school, but that's (sadly) a long time ago now, and beyond Adam Smith and his Invisible Hand, most of it has blurred into a twisted mass of terms like supply and demand, skilled and unskilled labour, gross domestic product and current account deficits, and recessions we had to have. Perhaps it's me trying to block out the memory of that time Peter Costello came to address our class during the '96 federal election campaign, and I weaselled my way into a photo opportunity and then PROCEEDED TO SUCK UP TO HIM. That's right, Australia, it was probably all my fault. But that's a story for another day.

The point is - what was it again? Oh yes. Figures. Numbers. Sums. Me. Not good at. Yes. My mathematical ability begins and ends with addition and subtraction, and calculator-assisted multiplication and division. 

I blame Mr McNaught, my Year 11 and 12 maths teacher. Oh, I know shouldn't really. I only have myself to blame, etc etc. Even at the end of Year 11 I was still getting B marks for Maths B. But as Year 12 progressed, my interest in maths died off. I focused on my other subjects you see, knowing that my worst subject would be taken out of my final score assessment, and that subject was always going to be maths, no matter how well I did.

Mr McNaught was a lovely fellow really, but I found him very difficult to follow. It probably didn't help that I became resolutely stubborn in that way only teenage girls truly can be, and declared myself "stupid" and "unable to understand" maths. My primary interest became collecting Mr McNaught's quaint and often baffling sayings and analogies, delivered in his uniquely nasal voice. I remember him referring to sine or cosine or something on a graph "zooming off ever skywards". His putdowns were legendary: "You think you're funny? I can be funny too. Get out."

And then of course there was his favourite - The Pythagoras Joke. He'd promised us this joke for TWO YEARS. There was so much build-up. This was of course in the days before students had badjokes.com readily available on their smartphones, so nobody had thought of doing some research into what it could be. Of course, when he finally took the covers off and delivered the Maths Gag of the Century, it was met with some seriously unimpressed groans. "The squaw on the hippopotamus?" I mean, come on. Mind you, the writing had been on the wall when he'd stuffed up the delivery and given away the punchline about 30 seconds too soon.

I kept a meticulous record of all these quotables in the back of my maths copybook. Fellow students, upon learning of my project, would make sure to turn around and mouth "Put it in the book!" every time Mr McNaught delivered another clanger. One of the first things I did with my family's first proper computer (there'd been a gap after we deep-sixed the Apple IIe) was type them all out, do up a title page and bind them all together into a presentation booklet that we gave to him in our final class of Year 12. I titled it "Try and Stay With Me Now", a phrase Mr McNaught would oft employ as he attempted once again to explain some intricate quirk of trigonometry or calculus or something else that my brain has long since replaced with Simpsons quotes and Lady Gaga lyrics.

I remember giving a speech at our valedictory dinner (because yes, I was that nerd), and finishing it with that exact same quote. I think Mr McNaught was there; I hoped he liked it. I think perhaps his patience with me may not have lasted though; I heard later that he'd been particularly displeased that I'd scrawled "I DON'T REMEMBER LEARNING THIS" all over my final block Maths B exam. I wound up failing - my only ever "L" (for "Low") throughout high school (because yes, I was that nerd). Still, I did get an OP3, and never really did use maths again, just like I'd always sworn I wouldn't when I became a journalist...

.... until Budget Week of course. Then I rant and rave and curse the 16-year-old me for being short-sighted about the value of maths as well as thinner and more active. Mostly it's the maths though. And I'm sure, somewhere, Mr McNaught is still out there, still telling the Pythagoras joke and mucking up the punchline, still trying to explain the wonder of mathematics to recalcitrant adolescents... and laughing at me looking angry and confused by budget numbers on the telly.

And frankly, that's utterly fair enough.


  1. There is nothing wrong with Lady Gaga lyrics. And I often quote Homer Simpson, who, after watching a man trip and fall opined "it's funny because I don't know him." And it was true.

  2. I slept through maths A, B and C. They bored me.

  3. I missed the memo that you don't actually need to do any maths at all in post-compulsory. I didn't find that out until it was too late to drop.

  4. I'm taking Economics next year! Is it hard!? I LOVE math!!! I'm going into Calculus A.B next year!! I hold on to the truth that math IS in EVERYTHING!!!

    I LOVE ur blog!! U take great pictures as well!!! Check out my blog sumtime!!! The URL to it is:
    THANX!!! Take care!!

  5. My siblings were of the 1 OP (with concomitant scholarships/bursarships) variety. So the bar was set waaaay too high. Also, I knew my Physics teacher was about to be sacked for incompetence, so I slept through all science and maths subjects. Then I dropped out halfway through year 11.

    Strangely enough, the sacked Physics teacher and I both ended up working at the CES. That should give you some idea why the place was shut down.

  6. You can do a convincing journalist! I saw "The Truth"