#31 New Math

I vaguely recall being an elementary student in the 70’s when a rumor floating through the school saying “new math” was on the way.  As a child I thought that all math was new so what’s the difference? 

My former elementary school in Hurst, Texas. The location of the beginnings of my misunderstandings of the metric system.

As I grew beyond Donna Park Elementary School, this terminology did not disappear.  It seemed that every few years “new math” reared its head.  In my last few years as a teacher I watched colleagues ponder the “new math processes” they were to facilitate to students to ensure full understanding of well known concepts.  It was at this point I wondered did the “new math” happen when I was a lowly elementary student and I just wasn’t aware due to the way my teachers gracefully introduced the strategies?  But, somewhere in the fog of my brain I recalled the “new math” of my younger days was somehow connected to a better understanding of the metric system.

Upon my arrival in Mexico I was once again confronted with the concept of “new math”.  It all started with the speed limit.  With forty years of auto navigation focused on miles per hour under one’s belt it takes time for a brain to accept speed limit signs bearing the numbers 120 km or speedometers reading 35 km when moving at the pace of a typical school zone.  A year later these numbers have assimilated in my mind.  I’ve also learned most are mere suggestions as it’s not uncommon for the policía to blow past me as I cruise down the main drag. 

Highway distance postings create their own mystery.  The four lane road running north and south from the USA border is Highway 15.  When heading toward the states we rely on signage to let us know where we are in our travels as much of the roadway is surrounded by mountains, cactus deserts and farm land.  However, posted distances to the town of Nogales cause drivers to consider the concept of time travel.  Instead of becoming progressively lower the “km to” jolts to and fro as one continuously maneuvers northbound along the pavement.  The first sign announces the town to be 90 km away followed by signage declaring only 115 km to go.  The final posting notifies drivers they will arrive in Nogales in just 98 km.  Which sign is accurate?  Who knows but I say at some point the town appears and is quickly left in the rearview mirror.  Perhaps understanding this mystery can only be untangled by the new math promised to me so many years ago.

Pemex is one of the major gas companies in Mexico. It used to be the one and only option and run by the government. Mexico has introduced the idea of dueling gas stations and competition has rolled into town. Today you can find Pemex, Arco, Chevron and Flecha.

The once easy gassing up a car now accounts for another arithmetic obstacle.  After forty years of providing my own fuel service at the large US “pay at the pump” stations I was fairly set about the quantity and price to expect when gassing up for the week.  Filling my 24 gallon tank would cost me roughly $50 to $60. In Mexico, there is no DIY option, no pay at the pump, and sadly no Bucee’s.  Instead, drivers roll into a Pemex or Arco where they are greeted by fuel attendants.  These men and women happily add gas to car tanks, wash windows and even check oil upon request.  Now the math begins.  When you roll into position you’re greeting with a friendly, “Buen dia. ¿Cuánto cuesta?” Gas is measured by the liter and is sold of course in pesos. How many liters do I need?  Hmmm?  That would take converting gallons to liters to have a decent guess.  How many pesos worth do I need?  The peso has a value of 22 to 1. 

As the attendant patiently awaits my answer I realize, “I HAVE NO IDEA how much gas I need!”  I really should have thought this out sooner.  Being the problem solver I am, I’ve reverted to the simplest method of figuring this out.  It involves popping the fuel door and saying, “Lleno, por favor.” Fill, please.  The attendant verifies the pump is set at, “Cero,” fills the tank and hands me the credit card receipt which I sign as I try to avoid the sticker shock of the $1450 peso amount glaring at me from the strip of paper.  I drop a tip in his hand, we exchange pleasantries and goodbyes.  I drive away relieved with the thought, “Whew, no math required!”

Purchasing groceries is one of the best sources for nightmarish numbers.  As if translating the names of products from Spanish to English isn’t enough, one must also consider converting pesos to dollars, grams to ounces and pounds to kilos.  Talk about a multi step real world problem.  I spend a great deal of time in the local market attempting to decipher unknown spices, exotic produce, ingredients in the unlimited supply of bottled red sauces, confusing cheeses and the always baffling herbs.  With Google Translate as my constant companion I’ve had a great deal of success in making it out of the store with bags of edible items. 

It’s the meat market I approach with hesitancy.  Once again, there are kilos to consider.  After practicing my español in the tortilla isle I had my order memorized.  Walking up to the cooler filled with steaks, chicken and pork with confidence I offered, “Necesito tres kilogramos de carne molida.” I need three kilos of ground beef.  For those of you who immediately see my mistake, I’d like to take this opportunity to defend my thinking.  From past experience I knew that a 5K run was only a little over 3 miles.  Therefore, it made sense in my mind that a kilo would be less than the standard unit of measurement my American self used to purchase ground beef in the states.  WRONG!  I’d also like to defend myself by adding I was already dealing with language and currency changes and my brain was more than likely maxed to its 55 year old capacity for the day.  The butcher gave me a quizzical look and repeated my order with a questioning tone to which I responded, “Sí, por supuesto.”  Yes, of course.  Only when the scale held a massive mountain of meat did I fully realize my error.  It was too late.  I had failed the crucial carne question of the day.  As I hoisted the meat from the counter I developed my plan to solve the problem of arriving home with a package of beef equal to the size of a small cat.  I took the groceries including 6.61 pounds of hamburger meat to the register detouring through the paper products where I grabbed a box of quart size freezer bags.  I paid in pesos as onlookers undeniably wondered where the massive cookout was being held.  Loading the meat into the car I cursed those who apparently forgot to provide me with the much needed new math of my youth.  Ironically to date there are only three countries still using the imperial system of measurements.  These include Liberia, Myanmar and the United States.

Countries in red are still using the measurement system of my elementary school days. There are several countries that use a true combination of metric and imperial systems but most have changed to full metric.

While living in San Carlos, I’ve learned many new things about life and myself.  New information can and should be learned throughout life.  Mistakes can make for both learning and interesting stories.  Relax and enjoy what life throws at you.  Don’t take yourself so seriously.  Earning an “A” in school might be great but earning a “B”, “C” or the occasional “F” in life means you’re still gaining knowledge.  My “new math” grade in the School of Mexico Living isn’t stellar but I’m happy to say it is improving.

July 3, 2020

“Only in a math problem can one person have 68 watermelons and no one asks what is wrong with that person.”

– Unknown but 100% accurate

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