How often do you use algebra?

A friend sent me this today, reminding me that so much of enforced education is pointless.


Our history syllabus was “The Spanish Conquest of the Americas.”

Geography concentrated around the Orinoco Basin and deltas somewhere or other. We traced maps.

Nothing actually happened in chemistry lessons. Nothing went ‘bang’ or lit up in colours. Lessons consisted of trying to learn the chemical symbols for elements.

I was never able to understand what physics did.

I couldn’t sing.

I couldn’t draw, paint, sculpt or embroider.

I wasn’t any good at gym.

Maths, geometry, algebra, trigonometry were all double-Dutch.

I didn’t believe in religion.

Week after week, term after term, for 11 years I sat, with my classmates, glassy-eyed, bored, bewildered, and I was not alone. Many of us read comics on our laps while glancing at our watches every two minutes to see whether it was time for the bell that would signal escape from one set of metaphorical handcuffs so we could trundle down a corridor into another punishment block classroom. The whole thing seemed designed around control rather than personal growth and development. No talking in the dining room; no walking on the grass; no running; no hands in pockets; no taking your hat off in the street. Why? Why wasn’t it fun instead?

There were two classes that inspired me. English and French. I was good at both and would have happily studied languages all day, every day, in preference to any other subjects.

I have never since used algebra or geometry, nor have I ever needed or wanted to know about the Orinoco basin, what causes light refraction, why the Spanish needed to conquer the South American natives. I’ve never needed to balance on a narrow bar two feet off the ground, vault over a wooden horse, dangle by my heels from terrifyingly high wall bars or play a recorder. Nevertheless, all those things were compulsory.

In short, apart from English and French, the whole thing was a wicked waste of time, for which I point the finger firstly at the system, and secondly at teachers who were blatantly as disinterested as their pupils, reading in a monotone from books clearly written for the treatment of insomnia. I’ve often wondered why the system isn’t geared to let children channel their energies at an early age into those subjects that do appeal to them, in order that their education can be tailored to inspiring them so that lessons become a pleasure rather than a chore, and when they leave school, they will be equipped and motivated to follow a career.

No offence intended to those teachers I know face a difficult and often thankless task into which they put their hearts, souls, passion and many unpaid hours.  At least two of my friends are teachers and I know they love their work and imagine that a class with them is a treat for their pupils. If only they’d been around when I needed them.

I will never use algebra.

Resilience – your name is Anna Murray

I’ve been reading some books written about and by people who have lived in Africa, and over the next couple of weeks I’d like to share my thoughts about some of these and their authors.

The first title is “Born on Friday 13th” by Anna Murray.

While her childhood was spent in Kenya, that is incidental to her story, which centres on the loss of her only child, Anthony.

Anna was born in East Africa on Friday 13th. The death of her father at a young age left her mother to raise her children single-handed, which she did by sheer hard work, and in some ways Anna’s youth was privileged, growing up in a beautiful country and riding to school on her pony. But when her mother died, Anna had to leave for further education in England, in the care of her aunt. She studied catering, which was going to stand her in good stead later in life.

Without parental support and guidance, she became involved in a relationship with a dubious character who was wanted by the police, and went on the run with him, while expecting a child. The relationship did not survive, but gave her a beautiful blond son, also born on Friday 13th. Like her own mother, she devoted every ounce of energy and enterprise to give her child the best life and education possible, which sometimes required them both to make painful sacrifices. Anthony  grew into a handsome, athletic young man; and then in one day, his life was ended in a freak accident. On Friday 13th.

After that, Anna had to find a way to continue with her life, which she did by immersing herself in work and building up a successful catering business in Chantilly, France. But around every corner life was waiting to pounce and try to drag her down. However, she is not one to give up, and despite much illness and continuing heartbreak, she’s still standing. Little wonder, though, that she “will always be a little afraid of Friday 13th.”

She tells her tale without artifice or cries for sympathy. The writing is matter-of-fact, as if Anna is keeping her emotions tightly under control lest they erupt and overwhelm her and her readers.

The basic Kindle version suffers from the common blight of images upsetting the formatting, but the images themselves give a fascinating look into her life and are best viewed in the Amazon app on a tablet.

I felt that the introductory chapter and her mother’s epic drive, while interesting in their own right, were superfluous and got the narrative off to a slow start, and the chronology is sometimes a little higgledy-piggledy. But don’t be put off by that, because she has an extraordinary, harrowing story to tell, demonstrating the strength of the human spirit when facing the worst that life can keep throwing at it, a story she tells in her own sincere words and way.