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

Fri, Jun 13, 2014, 22:33

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.

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