Fifty years on and I have given in again to my attraction to maths

After falling love with maths again, Pat Costello spent the winter fully dressed in bed with a hot water bottle and a maths book – and sat Leaving Cert maths this week

Pat Costello, who studied ordinary level maths in the Dún Laoghaire Training Board Learning Centre and sat it for the Leaving Certificate. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Pat Costello, who studied ordinary level maths in the Dún Laoghaire Training Board Learning Centre and sat it for the Leaving Certificate. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times


Fifty years after I sat my Leaving Certificate, including pass maths, I returned to class as a retiree. I’ve always been attracted to maths and I set about renewing my relationship. I did Fetac Level 5 – business calculations, thanks to a free course at Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, which gave me a basic grounding in useful calculations, area, volume, compound interest, taxation, graphs and statistics.

And, oh, the magic of Excel, which produced pie charts and bar graphs to match my charts, all in less than a second.

Last autumn I was ready for a more intense liaison and I decided to attempt Leaving Cert maths at ordinary level.

Why would I do an exam? Surely that’s where nightmares begin?I know I’m flying against modern educational thinking that students should study for love of a subject, but I believe exams focus attention and spur you on, like a deadline for a journalist. As far as I’m concerned, the more exams the better.

There is nothing ordinary about Leaving Cert maths. I am filled with admiration for all those 18-year-olds who tackle the marathon of one subject after another. Ordinary level maths is high up there on the Richter scale of marathons. It’s a great standard and I’m proud to be part of this year’s cohort of more than 30,000 students who sat ordinary level. Our higher brethren amount to 17,065, some of whom will have dropped down to ordinary.

The curriculum has changed from my time, when all calculations were done in our heads or in the rough work column. Now we use calculators for magic solutions, even multiplying the sine, cosine or tan of an angle by any side of the triangle.

Do you remember those log tables? They are all in the calculator, a click away. All the formulae come in a handy book which the supervisor distributes to candidates. I remember learning them off by heart and before Ieven looked at the paper I wrote them down, in case they were needed.

At the start of term, I thumbed through my text book. I had no notion what calculus, differentiation, functions, complex numbers, indices or even permutations were about. I had jumped in too deep. Egyptian hieroglyphs made much more sense than the mathematical symbols.

I was tempted many times to dump my sums as I looked into a black hole of incomprehension. Few friends and family could understand understood my interest. It was like falling in love with a ne’er-do-well sadly wanting in the attraction department. Most people had bad maths experiences and never wanted to look that ogre in the face again.

But I put in the hours, did every sum in Text and Tests, and timed myself with a stopwatch as I waded through past papers. Through winter I sat up fully dressed in bed with my hot water bottle and my maths books around me. I behaved like a 16-year-old: I was easily distracted, played Candy Crush on my phone, listened to the radio, sneaked down to the TV.

I finally got to grips with the concepts when I got help from a friendly maths teacher. D-day came on June 6th and 9th, and I turned up at Rathmines College, Dublin, clutching my exam number, passport for identity, calculator, pens and pencils, compass and new box of mechanical instruments.

I don’t know why, but I wasn’t nervous. My fellow students were armed with chocolate and bottles of water; I chewed gum.

When I turned the paper over, I tucked in as if it were a good meal, glancing at the delights ahead but enjoying the topic before me. I think I did OK on Paper 1, but Paper 2 was a different kettle of fish. It was so long.

There seemed to be endless calculations and time was racing by. I couldn’t immediately see how to do the question on functions, so I left it and sped to the house property tax and wind turbines. The questions were so interesting and relevant to life, which is the aim of Project Maths.

I wanted to write in boldcoloured ink all over my paper: “I adore this subject. I hope my enthusiasm and excitement at how much I now understand is palpable. I just wish you would give me more time and allow me to digest the concepts and sip my wine as I savour the delights of this meal you have put before me.”

I didn’t get the paper finished and made some very stupid mistakes. You don’t take the exam paper away with you as everything is written under the question and all is handed up. I’m afraid to look at the exams online in case I made more mistakes than I think. At the moment, as far as I can tell, I’ve definitely passed.

Zealot that I am, it’s not easy to convert friends to maths.

I have told them about the exciting new world peopled with characters who spanned the globe and the centuries and knew all about each others’ theories. For uniting the world, mathematicians and scientists could beat sport into a cocked hat – and measure that cocked hat as well.

I long for a potted history of the rivalries, intrigues and collaborations of these scholars who obsessed about calculations. Project Maths is all very well but I wish my textbook told me why and how.

I’m thinking of trying honours Leaving Cert next year. On the evening of my last exam, after celebrating with a glass of wine – no, I didn’t take to Temple Bar and the alcopops – I took a peek at the honours paper. If I get the books and papers now and study over the summer, maybe, just maybe, I could give it a go!

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