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.