Education People: Taking up maths, after half a century

When she retired Pat Costello gave herself the challenge of learning the most feared subject in the curriculum – maths

Pat Costello. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Help! Desperately seeking maths class. I’m hooked, I’m crazily addicted, I’ve got the maths bug. Give me more, please. That was my cry for help this summer and instead of going on Facebook and Twitter, where I didn’t expect any response, I picked up the phone and called all the colleges within a 20-mile radius of my home. Sadly, though, there’s not much call for maths these days and most classes have been discontinued.

My love affair began last year when, after an exhaustive trawl, I discovered the best class ever – maths. And I found a gem. Maths always held a fascination for me, so after I retired last year I went looking for a class that would allow me to brush up on the basics. On the class list, it came under the heading of “Business Calculations”.

When last I sat in a maths class – half a century ago – there were no ATMs, no mobile phones and no personal computers. My world was measured in inches, feet and yards and my purse contained pounds, shillings and pence. It all contributed to making calculations very complicated.

Like most girls at the time, I didn’t do honours Leaving Cert maths. It wasn’t taught in most girls’ schools. In 1963 only 71 girls sat honours Leaving Cert maths, just under five per cent of the total number of candidates. Compare that to 2011 when 3,758 girls sat honours Leaving Cert maths, nearly 46 per cent.

I didn’t want to join a class of teenagers, nor did I feel ready for Leaving Cert. Since I did my Leaving, the whole shape and content of the course had changed. There were new and puzzling words such as vectors, calculus and sets, all of which meant nothing to me. I wanted to start somewhere near the beginning but not quite as basic as tables.

So why did I want to take up maths again? My friends are puzzled and my family wonders why I couldn’t be doing something more useful like computers or a language.

The answer is perhaps because, at this stage in my life, studying a subject doesn’t have to be useful but can be an end in itself.

Also, I loved maths in school, particularly the whole calculation business and getting the right answer. For me, it is like playing Solitaire, doing a crossword or a Sudoku, great fun but not really that practical.

So, after much searching I found myself at my at Dun Laoghaire Adult Learning Centre, cee they agreed to take me in. I did a Fetac level five course called Business Calculations and I just loved it.

Strangely enough, the course proved useful because the syllabus included taxation and now I can work out bank interest charges. The added plusses were that the classes were free and everyone was so friendly and welcoming.

There were about seven of us in class and after only a few sessions, Peter, our very patient teacher had removed the fear. Until I began this class I never realised how many people hated and were terror-struck by maths when in school.

Peter taught us about numbers, how there are only four things you can do with a number: add, subtract, multiply and divide, and the answer is always a number. When you say it like that, it all seems so easy. If we don’t understand something, it’s the English that is causing the problem and if we don’t know how to go about a sum, there’s always a rule and it’s all decided by convention.

Amazingly some of these formulae and conventions go back to ancient Greece, Persia and India, so who are we to quibble?

When we did fractions the old vocabulary came flooding back – improper and vulgar fractions were some of the terms that amused me then. I can still hear my teacher of six decades ago telling us how to simplify a row of fractions using the acronym, BOMDAS. It stands for: brackets, of, multiplication, division, addition and subtraction. Peter explained that we need such a formula so two people in separate rooms, or at the far side of the globe, will get the same answer.

All of us in class can remember ourselves as children singing out our tables and we bless good old-fashioned rote-learning which is so dependable. I have a very special memory of Miss Meredith who founded the Pembroke School beside Baggot Street in Dublin, who taught us sums in primary school. Neatness and the correct answer were both important, and the greatest praise you could get was the word “beautiful” written in red ink on your copybook page. In my mind’s eye, I can clearly see her graceful copperplate script and still feel the pride.

The computer has become my ally. If I have a problem, for example finding the area of a circle, I can check it on the internet where legions of teachers are waiting on Youtube to show me how to do it.

So now with my proud distinction in Business Calculations under my belt I wanted more, but until this week, the search for a Leaving Cert maths class was proving elusive.

I checked out a day of free grinds in a school close to me but it reminded me too much of Charles Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind. I need to be able to ask why and am just too old to take material at face-value.

So last week I signed up. I am going to spend two hours on Monday evenings doing Leaving Cert pass maths in Rathmines College and I am thrilled. It’s Project Maths so I’ll be able to dazzle friends with my insider knowledge of the new syllabus.

I haven’t changed too much since my school days so I still need an exam to make me focus on my studies. I have made a firm resolution to reform my idling; no more time-wasting puzzles for me. I have renounced Angry Birds for pie charts. They are much, much, more fun.

And am I more alert? Has my memory improved?

The answer is yes, I think so. It’s probably all just in my mind but I do think I feel a bit of whirring activity on the right side of my brain. The old grey cells are on the move, faster and more accurate. The feeling is a bit like driving a Bugatti on a racing track instead of my trusty 10-year-old Astra on the inside lane.

Dún Laoghaire Adult Learning Centre is part of the new Dublin Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board. For a full list of its adult education services see ddletb.ie or telephone 01-2147200.

Details of all national Education and Training Boards (ETBs) are on etbi.ie

Rathmines College of Further Education CDETB (City of Dublin Education and Training Board) 01-4975334