Thursday, March 6, 2014

tumbleweeds and Math

Driving on the 215 freeway north toward Romoland, population, who cares, a giant tumbleweed pushed by the wind dodged through the traffic with an almost sentient purpose of playing chicken (If I have to explain the game of chicken…well just look it up).

As my little Toyota Corolla approached the game was on.  The tumbleweed seemed to grow in anticipation of the match, his thorny and jagged appendages stiff against the forces of the other vehicles that sped past, his stance stable and waiting, slightly moving from side to side but right in the middle of the lane.

From my perspective the tumbleweed was a giant with a diameter of nearly six feet across and a circumference of what looked like a rolling monster of prickly brown barbs ready to scratch and maim the thin red paint of my car.  But this was a contest, a challenge, a dual of epic proportions, it was me against nature and my little red cars paint be damned I was not going to be the first to blink.

With each passing meter my hands gripped the wheel, holding the car steady, my audible words of comfort and support telling the little warrior to “stay the course, there’s nothing that weed can do to us”, leaving out the obvious that the cars finish and luster could be compromised by the encounter, I didn't want to scare the little guy.

The truth be told I really didn't have a choice in this encounter with destiny, the semi-truck on one side and the shoulder of the road on the other prevented me from moving out of the lane and cowering into a more practical position of neutrality.  So there I was only a second from impact, instinctively covering my eyes from the impending explosion of thorns and seed pods when a gust of wind, too strong for even the mighty tumbleweed, pushed the soldier ten feet into the other lane.

The old Mac Truck with its huge front grill, polished to perfection with gleaming chrome and shiny black paint hit the monster head on, demolishing the tumbleweed into a billion shards of sharpened pins, the life of that tumbleweed was over.

But like all horror stories the evil never really dies it only morphs and changes to rise again, greater and meaner than ever before.  The tumbleweed is very much like an unknown nemesis, sitting quietly on the side of the road, stacked against fences and walls, just waiting for its chance to spread its prickly progeny in any uninfected areas.

Just like in western’s, I've always liked the drama of witnessing the fight of man against nature or Indians, the fast guns and the faster good guys but in almost all such stories the glaring untruth of the tumbleweed seems ever-present.    The tumbleweed is not a native to the US and it certainly was not around during the rush toward the west.  It was not a constant reminder of the sadness of the cowboy or the lonesome or dreary existence of the trials faced by the pioneers.  It does however share in the current persona that is the old west and in some small part in the perseverance and almost insurmountable resolve demonstrated by those early explorers and settlers.

 Through Hollywood’s early intervention the tumbleweed has become an Icon and has developed the reputation as the official representative of all things forlorn and all things western.  But the humble beginnings of the tumbleweed in the US tells a different story, not a story of resolve or tenacity, nor one of firmness or determination but one of a lackadaisical, unpretentious, lazy, ne'er-do-well, taking advantage of others hard work and secretly imposing itself in all that is pure and undisturbed. 

Originally known as Salsola tragus or Russian thistle this pervasive weed is a hitchhiker from the Ukraine and most likely made its American Debut in an unassuming shipment of flax seed, ending up in a desolate area of South Dakota around the years 1870-1874.  No one really noticed and no one really cared but the expansion of the weed filled the country like a “weed” (sorry couldn't resist).

From 1870 to now the tumbleweed is found in virtually every Midwest and western state with serious incursions into Mexico and parts of Canada.  From very humble beginning this weed has not only demonstrated its resolve but its floundering woefulness.  Perhaps it could have been controlled or even eradicated but initial efforts would have had to be profound, immediate and swift.  Like many things insidious the tumbleweed took hold and filled the environment, changing the very landscape and the opinion of that evil into the one we have today, an accepted and important part of our history. Unfortunately and just like all history, the memory of what really happened has been rewritten to accommodate the victorious.

The weeds of our society are more pervasive than most of us realize and the history that is being written about our resolve will also be recorded based on how we react to those initial invasions.  Math is a good example.  As a teacher teaching math has always been a challenge but recent changes in educational attitudes have demonstrated the lack of resolve to do what is needed to ensure math proficiency.    New programs seem to be introduced each year with promises of student heightened learning and greater understanding and each year most students move on through the courses with little or no basic understanding of math.

We have forsaken the very basic principles of teaching and have allowed students behaviors to dictate educational necessity.  Learning math requires practice, doing problems over and over again, memorizing facts and tables so the basics of math become automatic.  Learning higher skills without the basics can never really be accomplished.  So it is with life lessons. 

When we pander to societies, mostly our youth, desire not to work and still offer fulfillment we are only adding to their lifelong discontent and their eventual hatred toward those who allowed them to succeed without merit and without work and so it is with the tumbleweed.  Moving by the winds of change, no real work involved, simply being and depositing its ill gotten spawn wherever they rest. 

We are a society of tumbleweeds, holding none to blame and requiring nothing.  It’s time to sit them down, make them sit, make them work, make them do problem after problem until they understand the realities of responsibility and the joy of real learning through honest effort….It may already be too late but like the old saying “better late than never”.

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