Math is hard, let’s go shopping, says Barbie (and others)

Remember the big kerfuffle in 1992 when Mattel released a Teen Talk Barbie that said “Math is hard, let’s go shopping”? (Actually, if you look it up, you’ll find some references that quote it that way, and others that quote it as “Math class is tough. Want to go shopping? Okay, meet me at the mall.”) The reason for the kerfuffle was of course the not-so-subtle subtext suggesting that teenage girls can’t do math — because it’s too hard for them — so they should go shopping instead.

So, yesterday I stopped at the Trader Joe’s in Cambridge on the way home, and I happened to get a chatty cashier. She asked me what I do for a living, and I told her I’m a high-school math teacher. Needless to say, I expected to hear the familiar reply: “I never was any good at math.” Sure enough, that’s pretty much what she said. (Actually, it was a bit more complicated. She told me that she did well in geometry but never understood algebra. Except for geometry she did poorly in both high-school and college math because she could never deal with formulas. But now she’s an artist… well, you don’t want to know the whole story, but the key line is that she finally realized that math and art are actually a lot more alike than she had ever guessed, since “math and art are both about patterns and relationships.” Yes!)

And then this afternoon I got a phone call from my dental hygienist who told me that we needed to change my appointment because she has to take four weeks off to study for retaking her dental school admission exams, since she failed the math portion. “I never was any good at math.” Sigh. As Jerry P. King put it, “There will come a time when mathematical ignorance, like public smoking, will become socially unacceptable.” But for now for some reason it’s acceptable to admit inability to do math but not inability to read.

P.S.: Speaking of Trader Joe’s, there are 16 Trader Joe’s in Masssachusetts, so why isn’t there one in Dorchester? The demographics are right. Pass the word to the Trader Joe’s management!

Categories: Dorchester/Boston, Math, Teaching & Learning