Thursday, September 3, 2009

"A Shining Haven of Certainty"

I don’t want to interrupt my mellifluity with clunky exposition, so I’m putting it at the top.

Ontario is a province. That’s like a state, only we have ten of them, and you have fifty. Forty-nine, if Texas secedes. One other expository nugget. My hometown of Toronto is located in the province of Ontario.

During my academic era – though apparently not anymore – the province of Ontario required a thirteenth Grade of High School. But only if you wanted to go to college. If you didn’t, you could graduate after Grade Twelve. Post Grade Twelve graduation jobs invariably involved repairing things. Since my natural response to anything broken is to “take it in”, the college track was my only choice.

I had to go to Grade Thirteen.

Other than English, which was mandatory, Grade Thirteen offered a variety of subject options you could choose from. Well, that’s not exactly correct. If you were planning to become a doctor, you were required to take the pre-requisite math and science courses.

(It always amazed me that eighteen year-old kids knew what they wanted to be for the rest of their lives. I didn’t know what I wanted to watch on television that night. Yes, I did. Cowboys. I just said that for dramatic for effect. Having now added this, I stand pretty much exposed and embarrassed. But the point stands. They knew what they wanted to be. I didn’t.)

People who had no idea what they wanted to be could take anything. I took languages – French, Latin and German – and biology. Each language class, including English, broke down into two separate courses – grammar and authors (literature). I took nine courses in all – eight languages (English, French, Latin and German, times two), and Zoology.

(A note on my academic abilities. I was never an understander. But I was a magnificent memorizer and (informational) regurgitator. Once, taking a Zoology midterm, I got the highest grade in the class. Later, when the teacher gave back the exams, he asked me to stand up and read aloud one of my splendidly correct answers. As I stood there, regaling my classmates with my impeccable response, I could simultaneously hear myself thinking, “I have no idea what I’m talking about.” I had learned it all. But I’d understood nothing.)

The Grade Thirteen “Finals” – each exam was two and a half hours, and we often wrote two of them per day – covered the entire year’s work – September to June. Going over that much material took an intense amount of studying. Fortunately, aside from being a magnificent memorizer and (informational) regurgitator, I also possessed a prodigious amount of sitzfleisch. I think I spelled that right. My spell check doesn’t do German.

Sitzfleisch literally means…I don’t know what it literally means, something to do with “sitting meat.” What it refers to is a person’s ability to sit in one place and concentrate for extended periods of time. Sitzfleisch is an extremely useful attribute when you’re cramming for your Grade Thirteen “Finals.” Fortunately, I had sitzfleisch to burn. Still do. (Sitzfleisch is also a useful attribute for writers.)

I have always studied (and worked) with music playing. I find background music drowns out all extraneous distractions, including, for me the most oppressive distraction of them all, silence. As I prepared for my “Finals”, this studying style led not only to my absorbing the material, but also to my (unconscious) committing to memory the entire Top Forty of 1963. (Including I Will Follow Him, It’s My Party, My Boyfriend’s Back and Da Doo Ron Ron.)

Despite my admitted strengths, I still felt enormous pressure. I didn’t believe I was going to fail, but what if I choked? There was a lot riding on these exams. Not only did doing well mean getting into the college of my choice (The University of Toronto), but, owing to recent family financial reversals, I needed to score high enough to win an Ontario Scholarship, whose four hundred dollar award would go a long way towards paying my tuition. I had always been an “A” student – if you don’t count gym, and Manual Training – but this one was for all the marbles.

The heat was really on. I had no idea how I’d perform.

I needed a safety valve, a welcoming respite from doubt and fear. Surprisingly, I found it in mathematics. Not hard mathematics. The simple applications of multiplication and division.

Whenever I couldn’t take anymore, I’d set my studying aside, and pick up a pen and some nearby notepaper. On that paper, I would randomly write down two three-digit numbers, one number directly over the other. I would then multiply those two numbers together. When I finished, I would divide the answer I had gotten by one of my two original numbers. If I’d done my computation correctly, what I’d end up with was the other number.


That’s how it works. (Whoever invented mathematics made it up that way.) You multiply two numbers together, divide the answer by one number, and you get the other number. Every, single time. I can’t tell you how comforting that was at the time. With all the uncertainty swirling around, there was this one place where I knew, without question, how things were going to come out.

Today, as I proceed towards my rendezvous with my medical destiny, I find myself returning reassuringly to the tried and true.

Four hundred and seventy-eight times six hundred and ninety-five. Five eights are forty, carry the four, five sevens are thirty-five…
Thanks, commenter, for illuminating me about the Fifth Third Bank. Sometimes, comedy requires the persistence of ignorance. But once in a while, it’s okay to sacrifice the “ha-ha” for something you’re truly curious about. It can’t happen too often, however, or you’ll wind up an accountant. My apologies to accountants who are actually funny.


Anonymous said...

I was never a good multi-tasker in high school; whenever final exams came around I was spread to thin and never did too well. My final year I decided to concentrate on my English final exam and got the second highest score of the year [only two points behind the first place finisher] All hell broke loose, I was accused of cheating and they held up giving me my final grade and said I would not receive my diploma. It came down to my parents telling them to prove I cheated otherwise they would sue the school system. They couldn't prove it and needless to say, I was incensed cause I had busted my ass at the expense of nearly failing my other exams to prove I knew my English courses. I can't imagine having to take what basically amounts to a 13th grade when I barely made it through 12.

Andrew said...

-- My apologies to accountants who are actually funny.

Both of them!

Actually, I've known funny accountants. When they wanted to make fun of someone boring, they made fun of actuaries.

RacerX said...


This is Seinfeld in Germany...they just sit there and it works on all levels.