Confessions of an English Major

Contrary to popular belief, Albert Einstein was not, in fact, an English major.

A few weeks ago, I dropped a math class. It was the first time I’ve done so, and I waited longer than I should have to turn in the form. It wasn’t the embarrassment or the stigma of quitting (does that even exist anymore, at this point in the semester?) that slowed my pace. At the risk of melodrama, the most precise way I can describe my resistance to withdrawing is this: I felt as if a major part of me would be laid to rest if I took the class off my schedule.

Walking into math lecture is a bit like wandering through a foreign city in a country whose language I’ve only recently begun to learn.

Equations and proofs scroll across the projector screen. The words, familiar when isolated, become meaningless when arranged into proofs or problems. That’s how the hour passes — in a fog of confusion. But as I pack up my books at the end of class (shoving papers into binders, eager to think of other things), I feel a small but distinct strand of comfort. My confusion has the warmth of familiarity.

Memory is funny, and sometimes it lies. Every summer morning when I was younger, my dad and I sat at the kitchen table, doing math problems. My memory sees morning sunlight slanting in through the picture window. It sees my dad as he guides my eyes with his pen, gently correcting my mistakes. Only looking beneath nostalgia’s veneer do I remember that I couldn’t make it through most mornings without crying from frustration. I’d make the same silly mistakes and my dad too would grow irritable. I glanced at the microwave clock every 10 minutes, and eventually I’d ask to take a “break.” The break, I knew, would last until the next morning. But some days, somewhere through the tears and my dad’s impatience, I’d understand an idea, its origin and its web of implications. It was as though I were catching miniature glimpses of the Wonderful.

These days those profound instances of understanding arrive further and further apart. I slip, I stumble. I grasp fruitlessly at these abstract ideas that feel alien and far above my reach. But once in a while I hear or read some words, arranged in a particular sequence, and, for a fraction of a second, the pieces slide into place. I don’t pursue these moments as I once did — looking back, I’m always struck by how tenacious and hungry my younger self was. Now I’m content to sit among strangers quietly waiting for the hum of insight to arrive. It’s rare, but when the understanding finally comes, its warmth is deep and its edges sharp.

Lately I’ve been thinking about books and essays that are so perfect they make my head pound, I’m left so hungry for more. There’s the small inward gasp of breath I take when coming across a thought that resonates with my most private perceptions. Or the heady rush of passion, of possibility, of empowerment that a short rhythm can deliver. The intimacy of it all. But, on some level, I’ve realized that all of it is merely an intended effect, a carefully constructed appearance of serendipity.

I once read that, “Behind each word is a world waiting to be revealed.” This is literature’s magic: at its source is one person, writing words that attempt to contain an entire universe of emotions and ideas. In the end, it’s all gamed. The words, their cadences, were careful choices, engineered to both seem effortless and to resonate with us. We, the readers, only reach the brink of something real and tactile. We never quite arrive. We depend on our own history of experiences to fill in the space between our understanding and the writer’s intention. Perhaps the nature of what we write is what limits us — or maybe it’s the nature of language itself. But we hold on to these man-made vehicles because they take us as close to the edge as we can ever hope to approach.

Math isn’t gamed — it can’t be.

A professor who lectures on the nature of genius tells his students that the intrinsic nature of mathematical knowledge prevents its discoveries from being called “genius.” Some mathematicians were young when they struck upon their discoveries. There are also the mathematicians who, like Einstein, found a way to convey the complexity of their discoveries in simple, graceful terms. They, the people, may be “geniuses,” but the knowledge itself isn’t “genius,” the way works of art may be.

Unlike a concerto or a play, the solution to the question is already in existence, waiting for us to find it. The “genius” then, lies in the men and women and what they overcame to get at the elusive Truth.

But how reassuring, to know, at the very least, that something is there — absolute and waiting for us to see it. We have something firm to hold onto, even if we spend generations blindly groping for it. For 12 years, I have pored over textbook pages covered in my dad’s slanted writing. I am no mathematician; nothing I find will ever be genius. Still, each flicker of understanding I see is like crosshatch shading on a figure sketch, or the nutty aroma that lingers after a gulp of coffee, adding to my world new layers of richness.

Picture, please, two lines that march on forever. They meet and cross each other, forming four square angles. The lines spread across two-dimensional space. Wherever you move, you remain on the same flat plane. Shooting upwards from the point where the two lines meet is a third straight line. Now we’ve made three-dimensional space, a box without bounds, infinitely full of points. In this “box,” floating somewhere between the flat plane and the unreachable ceiling, is a shape. Like a bed sheet, it’s thin and wide with various folds and billows. The shape casts a flat, rippleless shadow over the plane.

Usually we’re stuck in this flat plane, seeing only a shadowy rendition of things. But we know that there’s something more. It’s so near our reach that if we tilt our heads and squint a certain way, we may catch sight of it for half a breath.

Math’s beauty comes simply from its nature. It reflects a type of order that can’t be twisted.

On those days when I wake up and seem to apportion my life into measuring cups, I feel I’m destined to live out only the small and trivial. Or that I’m trapped in my field of vision, forever ordained to see only a flatter version of how things Are. In our day to day, we see patterns, we make connections, we find ourselves inexplicably drawn to people, ideas, actions. Often we end up rejecting all of it as nonsense. At those times, without anything to grasp, it’s easy to feel powerless and alone. But at each intersection where intuition and mathematical order meet comes a brief confirmation. We’re reminded that the silent tendencies we harbor are not meaningless or unconnected in a vacuum but linked in a way that transcends time, space, language. I remember that I, too, am allowed glimpses at these truths. They’re yellow lights in a murky fog.

I feel a deep nostalgia for those mornings at the kitchen table. I miss my dad, but I also miss the purpose I once felt. The feeling of reaching for something that, although elusive, I know can be attained. Monday morning arrives cruelly. I walk in and look up at the screen and whiteboard, already covered in impossible lines and foreign numbers. My heart sinks thinking of the hour ahead, and I smile.

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