The Certainty of Numbers
It’s not the numbers you dislike—
the 3s or 5s or 7s—but the way
the answers leave no room for you,
the way 4 plus 2 is always 6
never 9 or 10 or Florida,
the way 3 divided by 1
is never an essay about spelunking
or poached salmon, which is why
you never seemed to get the answer right
when the Algebra teacher asked,
If a man floating down a river in a canoe
has traveled three miles of a twelve mile canyon
in five minutes, how long will it take him
to complete the race? Which of course depends
on if the wind resistance is 13 miles an hour
and he’s traveling upstream
against a 2 mile an hour current
and his arms are tired and he’s thinking
about the first time he ever saw Florida,
which was in seventh grade
right after his parents’ divorce
and he felt overshadowed
by the palm trees, neon sun visors,
and cheap postcards swimming
with alligators. Nothing is ever simple,
except for the way the 3 looks like two shells
washed up on last night’s shore,
but then sometimes it looks like a bird
gently crushed on its side.
And the 1—once so certain
you could lean up against it
like a gray fence post—has grown weary,
fascinated by the perpetual
itch of its own body.
Even the Algebra teacher
waving his formulas like baseball bats,
pauses occasionally when he tells you
that a 9 and a 2 are traveling in a canoe
on a river in a canyon. How long
will it take them to complete their journey?
That is if they don’t lose their oars
and panic and strike the rocks,
shattering the canoe. Nothing is ever certain.
We had no plan, the numbers would tell us,
at the moment of our deaths.
I love this poem. It was one of my favorites when I was a high school algebra teacher. My students were all mono-lingual - they spoke nothing but spanish. I was bilingual.
Somedays I wanted to accept that 6 plus 2 was purple. Or that a dividing two fractions was poached salmon. Everyday I wanted these students to grasp whatever they could - because once they hit the real world, they would lose their oars and panic. There would be no room to budge.
Sometimes the digit 1 did grow weary of waiting for the right answer. And when I told the students that 9 and 2 were traveling in a canoe - the canoe immediately sunk.
At the moment of our death, we have no plan. And algebra??? Once you solve a binomial, are you any more certain?