Monday, September 24, 2012

Kinsey Millhone

Here is my column from the September/October issue--the annual Teen Issue--of our Catholic diocesan magazine, Faith.

A number of years ago I began reading Sue Grafton’s mysteries, A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc. I read about six or seven of them and then I moved onto other books and over time forgot which letters I read and which I hadn’t. This summer I came upon U is for Undertow and thought that I’d be safe, as it was far enough along in the alphabet to not have been read yet.

I again quickly enjoyed her writing style and her quirky, California-based detective, Kinsey — until I got to this paragraph. Kinsey is describing problems that gave her math anxiety in high school:

"A train leaves Chicago for Boston traveling 60 mph, while a second train leaves Boston for Chicago at 80 mph. A bird flies back and forth between the two…” And that’s as far as I’d get. I’d start wondering why the bird was behaving so erratically, positing a virus affecting the bird’s internal gyroscope. I’d daydream about who was on the train and why they were going from Chicago to Boston. Then I’d fret about what as happening in Boston that residents had crowded into the fastest train out. I’d never been to Boston and now I was forced to scratch it off my list.

I laughed right out loud, over and over again-and then spent the next few days wondering why I had tried to convince so many teenagers of the importance of solving such mathematical quandaries. In those teaching moments I might have suggested that to solve these “distance problems” my students should: call up any knowledge or examples they might have gathered in class up to that point, check-in with their best phone-a-friend for help, use a healthy dose of common sense and then take a stab at it!

This theory is not particular to crazy algebra problems; it’s how many of us get through the stickier parts of life. Something comes up and we’re perplexed. What to do? What to consider? How to handle it? What decision to make? I suggest we follow some of the steps above: gather in all the information we know and experiences we’ve had, check with our best advisors and guides and don’t forget common sense.

Additionally, I think Kinsey’s attitude helps with perspective: there’s often a broader picture to consider, fresh angles that could bring in other views of the issue. Life has its harsh moments, without a doubt some are downright grueling. But, we’re not in this alone. We’re part of a community and “Where two or three are gathered together…”