Beauty, Wonder and Institutional Boredom

Perry S. Marshall

Mrs. Gould was my eighth grade math teacher.

Mrs. Gould and I did not get along.

She was “Exhibit A” of the stereotypical math teacher; ruthlessly methodical and hopelessly rigid, without the slightest notion about how to inspire the interest and cooperation of her students.

This was pre-algebra, where you had to deal with lots of fractions and very simple equations and solve for “x.” I could do it all in my head.

But that was not good enough for Mrs. Gould. She insisted that I “show my work.” As in, every single step. Otherwise, no credit would be given.

If 3x + 2 = 11, it doesn’t take any “work” to figure out that x =3. I didn’t show my work, I didn’t need to show my work, and I wasn’t going to show my work. Deep down I believed that if I stopped doing it in my head and started doing it her way, it would dumb me down. I might eventually lose the ability to do it in my head at all, and I’d need a piece of paper in order to think. So I just wrote “x=3” on the test.

She always gave me an “F.”

But then one night my dad went over to the school for parent teacher conferences and met her for the first time.

Mrs. Gould’s comment to me the next day: “Boy, for the father of such a rebellious and mouthy eighth grader, your dad sure was a nice man.”

Dad’s comment to me the next day: “Boy, you ain’t going nowhere, you ain’t watching no TV and you ain’t getting any more allowance until you show your work and fix your grades in Mrs. Gould’s class.”

I then decided that impaired thinking ability and the showing of work on tests was probably better than a life of impoverished isolation. And certainly better than taking eighth grade math all over again next year. So I reluctantly got my act together and decided to try and get along with Mrs. Gould. Fixing the problem required several nights a week in her classroom after school, doing remedial assignments and acknowledging that this woman could actually be a nice person if I tried to be a nice person too.

Twenty years later it seems like this could have been a whole lot easier than it actually was. First of all, she did have a legitimate point. She knew I could do it in my head in eighth grade, but the problems would only get more and more difficult in high school. What she really wanted me to do was learn to explain and justify my thinking process on a piece of paper, not merely use the paper as a crutch.

But what she didn’t do was sell me on the idea of showing my work. Most math teachers get an “F” from me in the category of showing the value of mathematics in general. I’d raise my hand and say, “What will I ever use this for?” and they were either unable or unwilling to tell me. When I asked Mrs. Butler, my pre-Calculus teacher, what exponentials and natural logarithms were for, she said she thought they used them in electrical engineering. And that’s all the answer I ever got.

I was a senior in High School then and I knew I was going to major in EE, but her answer didn’t make ex any more interesting. But I eventually did find out, and the answer was really fascinating. I found out that e was this “magical” number that made it really easy to describe growth and decay on that hated piece of paper.

If you added imaginary numbers to the equation, it accounted for vibrations, oscillation and music. An equation with those e’s in it could tell you the story of a plucked guitar string or a temperature controller. Learn to push those e’s and i’s around and you’ll be able to build speakers that give you goose bumps and factories that make Coca-Cola.

Some travelers can blithely put one foot in front of the other and be content to not know where the journey is taking them. Some bricklayers can put one brick on top of another without knowing it’s going to be a cathedral. Some chemists can mix chemicals together and not know or care that their formula will nourish hungry infants in a third world country.

But I think most of us do want to know. And we’d rather not find out by accident. We’d prefer that our teachers, our managers and our leaders to be able to show us where we’re going. We don’t want to be corporate drones who dutifully adhere to some plan that’s handed down. We want to be part of a real human vision and turn it into reality.

There’s a play called Jabberwock that’s based on Lewis Carrol’s famous poem, Jabberwocky:

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird
and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!

In this play, the Jabberwock is the beast that cares only for what you can give to the machine. It’s the institution that has no concern for your individuality and only wants to use you for its pragmatic purposes. It’s the soulless corporation that views people only in terms of what they can contribute to the bottom line.

I don’t have any problem with bottom lines at all. I’ve got mine, my clients have theirs, and you have yours. But while daily production adds to the bottom line, passion and vision multiply it.

Everybody’s got their own Jabberwock to slay. In education it’s the teacher who can show you how to do a procedure but doesn’t feel the need to show you how to use it or why. In engineering it’s the project and budget that’s been rigidly defined before the problem has been clearly understood. In advertising it’s the agency that just writes lazy, uninteresting, ego-stroking fluff about how great your company is, instead of doing their job and digging like a detective to capture the real story behind your new product. In accounting it’s the thousand drones at Anderson Consulting who toil over the columns on the Enron books, but none of them knows how the company actually works or where the cash is actually going.

I did a taped interview with a visionary leader in the Pharmaceutical industry, Tom Hoobyar of Asepco. I asked him, “What advice would you give to the salesman whose company constantly fails to keep their promises to his customers?”

He replied, “When I bent over backwards to help my customers and got screwed by my employer, usually my competitors were eager to hire me. So if your company is an embarrassment to you, kick “em in the ass.”

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
He chortled in his joy.

I don’t know who your Jabberwock is, but if you’re waking up every morning with a monkey on your back, it might be time to slay him. Not with bitterness and malice, but with resourcefulness, passion and vision.

If you don’t know the big picture, then get up from your desk, take a walk and find out. The person who knows might be bothered when you ask├ó… but then again, he might be elated to find out he’s not the only person in the company who cares.

Originally appeared in Manufacturing Automation magazine, (C)2002 CLB Media, Canada