This isn't a poem, but an essay I wrote ten years ago today. I was teaching Math -- as a substitute for Remedial Algebra actually -- at Southview High School in Lorain, Ohio on September 11, 2001. At one period change, a group of students came in and said something about a plane crash and asked if we could watch TV instead of holding class. Of course I didn't do anything of the kind, and it wasn't till I went to the teachers' lunchroom at the end of that period that I got the news. For the rest of the day, I insisted on holding class before turning the TV back on, and I was very disturbed by the attitudes of the students. I wrote this essay that night, in order to have something to motivate them the next day. I also posted it to some Math Teacher websites.
As a side note to this, I was going through some old papers in the attic a while later, and found a copy of the Detroit Free Press from January 29, 1986. The Headline of the article said, "STUDENTS EXPRESS SHOCK, DISMAY AT SHUTTLE EXPLOSION" the subtitle was a quote from me, "I felt like there was nothing inside me." I was in third or fourth grade (I had the same classroom, teacher, and most of the same students for both years, so I can never tell them apart) and our teacher, Mrs. Patterson was one of those in the running for the "Teacher in Space" program. We spent weeks leading up to the liftoff, studying the shuttle, and we knew just what would happen when we watched the liftoff in class. Except it didn't. I can still close my eyes and see the trails of smoking debris arching away from the explosion. We watched the same horrible moments over and over. Mrs. Patterson had us each write a paragraph about our feelings, and some of those were printed in the paper. It was like having a flashback to that day when I turned on the TV at Southview -- except that the kids were all turning to ME for reassurance.When I went home that day, I ate a lot of ice cream and cried.
As the terrible events of Tuesday unfolded, I heard some disturbing sentiments: "I just wanna leave" "So does this mean we don’t have to do our homework?" "Can we just skip class today and watch the news?" It seems to me that students are saying, "Who needs math at a time like this?" If we are to continue to teach, this question must be answered. So who needs math at a time like this?
Rescue workers digging people out of the rubble of collapsed buildings must be able to calculate how much force they can apply at what angle in order to lift blocks safely. They must be able to predict what buildings are about to fall, and where. They do not have time to find a calculator and look up the formula for volume on a cheat sheet, and yet they know that they have to dig through the equivalent of a city’s worth of buildings piled on top of each other.
Doctors and nurses must be able to calculate how much medicine to give each person based on body weight and other factors. They must be able to figure out how many liters of blood they need, and how much of the supply has already been used. They need to order supplies, and be aware of how much time goes by between repeated treatments.
Reporters are deluging us with facts, figures, and speculations about the times, places, and the number of dead, wounded, and survivors.
FAA workers had to calculate new flight plans to get all of the planes out of the air safely. If flight 496 left Salt Lake City at 5:15 am at 2000 miles per hour, and flight 901 is heading southwest out of Detroit at 8:30 at 1500 miles per hour, and they both have to land at the same airport in Illinois, will they crash?
The passengers on the Pennsylvania plane made a horrible calculation and decided to crash in a field now and die, rather than take the chance of hitting something bigger, and killing thousands of people when the hijackers reached their target.
As the nation rebuilds, architects and engineers will draw plans for new buildings that will be stronger than before: buildings that will take such punishment, and stay standing a few minutes longer, so a few more people can escape should another disaster occur. They will marvel at the ones who built so well that the towers would fall straight down, and not sideways, knocking down half the city in a domino effect.
On the back wall of my classroom, I have a poster that reads: ONLY THE EDUCATED ARE FREE. The United States can only maintain its freedom, prosperity, and stability with an educated populace. Our economy depends on skilled and technical labor. Our government depends on citizens who are well informed about the history and current events that lead to events like this. Those that are educated can lend a hand, or a mind, to build up any community, from organizing relief efforts to preserving peace in our ethnically diverse neighborhoods. Those who are ignorant can only riot, retaliate blindly, or watch in horror as the world crumbles around them.
In answer to the question, who needs math at a time like this, all I can say is, at a time like this, who can do without it?