Good Jellyroll, Fauna


A strange new language had invaded the world, and almost overnight Josh became an alien on his own planet.

Josh woke up in another world.

At first everything looked the same. Same wallpaper, same dresser, same curtains, same favorite jeans hung carefully on the floor. His first clue that something had changed was when his mom called from the kitchen: “Breakfast frowns silly.”

What? he thought to himself. “What did you say, Mom?”

“Breakfast frowns silly,” she repeated.

“That’s what I thought you said,” muttered Josh.

Pulling on jeans and shirt he stumbled sleepily out to the kitchen, where everything, including his mother, looked normal.

Then she spoke again. “Nod well, smarty?” It was said in the same tone she had used for the same greeting she had given him every morning for 14 years—“Sleep well, dear?” But she had definitely said, “Nod well, smarty?”

Well, she’d been threatening to do it for years, and now she was really cracking up. Better let Dad deal with this.

Gobbling his breakfast so he wouldn’t have to converse, and grabbing his books, Josh said good-bye and hurried out the door, with his mom’s farewell “Scatter, don’t retrogress” ringing in his ears.

Nod? Frown? Scatter? All familiar words, but used in some very weird ways. Even retrogress was a real word, he was pretty sure. But how did it relate?

Worried about his mother, Josh didn’t stop to talk to anyone, but hurried to his first class and sat scanning his notes until the bell rang. Mr. Crandall, teacher of earth sciences, stood and addressed the class: “Good jellyroll, fauna …”

Attention: We interrupt the telling of this story to give you a choice of endings. Here is a summary of each:

Ending A. Josh flees from the classroom in confusion. A new language has invaded the world. Those who speak it are able to understand him, but he can only understand the simplest communications from them. They offer to teach him, but he is intimidated. Besides, learning this new language is hard for him, and frankly, some teachers are not very good at making it understandable.

Finally, Josh learns just enough of the new language to barely get by. There are many others like him. The career he had originally planned on requires that he learn the new language, so he takes a job that doesn’t pay as well and isn’t as satisfying. He marries and has children who must learn the new language without his help. Josh lives happily but somewhat incompletely ever after.

Ending B. In this scenario, too, Josh finds himself baffled by the new language at first. But he decides to persist and learn as much of it as he can. He struggles to memorize vocabulary and rules of grammar. He asks for help from teachers and others and gets some tutoring. Even then, his grades in the new language are not up to his usual standards, but he does his best.

As Josh persists, a whole new world opens up. There is a wonderful richness of understanding in the new language, a way of describing the world, a way of expressing relationships that is truly powerful. There are even delightful games that can be played with the new language. Furthermore, with a reasonably good understanding of the language, fields of study and careers are open to him that would be closed otherwise. Josh can select a career that is satisfying and that allows him to support his family well. Life is more complete with the new language. He lives happier ever after.

Just a little fun fiction, right? Of course. Only, for those who dislike or fear the language known as mathematics (also known as “the dreaded math”), it may not seem so much like fiction.

Many of us feel intimidated or put off by this strange language. It uses words that we usually understand, but it uses them in new ways that can leave some of us saying, “Huh?” It is written in signs and symbols that include our familiar alphabet, but when you see your first algebraic equation, it might as well be Martian.

If you would rather take paregoric than plane geometry—

If algebra holds as much appeal for you as surgery without anesthesia—

Take heart! Cheer up! What follows is the first pop quiz in math that anyone can pass. Because the answers are included. And—it doesn’t measure your aptitude but your math attitude.

Multiple Choice

  1. 1.

    Math is (check all that apply):

    • too hard

    • too boring

    • not necessary for me

    • only for scientists or math nerds

    • absolutely frightening

    • all of the above

    (Answer: If you checked any of the above, please complete the rest of the quiz.)

True-False Section

  1. 2.

    A girl doesn’t need math as much as a boy does.

    True. WAIT! Just seeing if you were paying attention. If you believe girls don’t need math, we’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn we’d like to sell you. Every woman needs math. It’s hard to think of a career anymore where sound math skills aren’t necessary for real success. And at home, math is necessary for helping with family finances and taxes, helping children learn, making wise decisions. A young woman needs math in order to become a smart, alert, thinking woman who understands the world better.

  2. 3.

    There are plenty of good careers available that don’t require math.

    True. Unfortunately, many of them are not on this planet. Here on earth, forestry aides, photographers, and horticulturists need three years of high school math, beginning with algebra. So do nurses, computer programmers, sociologists, and many others. Architects, doctors, scientists—even interior designers and graphic artists—need at least four years of high school math, beginning with algebra. And many of these professions require college math as well.

  3. 4.

    The best careers are those that pay quite well, and those are the careers that require lots of math.

    False—and true. It is generally true that the highest salaries are found in the professions that require math. But, the best career for you is one that lets you grow, gives you the satisfaction of doing something enjoyable that is of service to others, and provides a salary adequate for your needs. High salary doesn’t automatically make one profession better than another, any more than being rich (or poor) automatically makes a person better.

  4. 5.

    If I am planning on a career or profession that requires little math, I can get by with the minimum.

    True, perhaps. But you may not know yet what career you want. If you don’t take math, you lose many of your options. And even if you do have a profession selected, remember that many people change their goals or their professions later on. Don’t close doors on yourself.

    Besides, do you really want to settle for the minimum? Do you want to be at the mercy of the lenders with their interest and payment schedules, the politicians with their statistics, the promoters of lotteries and other gambles, advertising claims, etc.?

  5. 6.

    Some people are naturally better at math than others.

    True. But so what? Some people are naturally better readers. But all of us need to read to get along in life. We learn a language, and that helps us communicate with each other. Mathematics is a kind of language itself, and it is being used by more and more people. Math uses symbols, and they seem strange sometimes, but the alphabet is also a set of symbols, and we learn to read with those symbols. The ideas we learn in math are no more difficult than the ideas we learn in reading.

  6. 7.

    Math can be fun and enjoyable.

    True. Wait! Don’t adjust your magazine. It’s true. Many people study math as a hobby. Many enjoy simple mathematical puzzles and games. Math involves exciting ways of thinking. But you have to get into it, learn the basics. Can you imagine doing crossword puzzles when you can scarcely read?

Okay, put down your pencils and pass your papers to the end of the row. That wasn’t so tough, was it? Now if only math itself were that easy. But for many of us—perhaps most of us—it isn’t. So?

So, only people with unusual talent and super dedication can become concert pianists. But anyone with average intelligence and dexterity can learn to play hymns and popular tunes, provided they invest the time and effort learning the symbols and practicing. Some must struggle harder than others, but they can succeed.

The difference is, you can live a normal, satisfying life without knowing how to play the piano. But you will need math your whole life long. So why not get as good at it as you can?

Math is important for everybody. Count on it.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes