_ In the early nineties, I watched my mother sit at our kitchen counter, her eyes raining tears, snot oozing like hot, fresh lava from her nose, as she puzzled over the college algebra courses she was taking. After I’d been teaching SAT math in Guatemala for a while, my wife tried to revisit her old nemesis, getting back to her roots, squares and fractions, solving for x when x was greater than or less than utter confusion, until she was so bedazzled that a slurry of sobs, sailor-like slurs, math revis had left me with a shell of a student. Some people see numbers a go cross-eyed instantly.
Speaking in another language is my kryptonite. The mach speeds at which natives can deliver ridiculously unpronounceable vocabulary, words that roll off my tongue like gravel, leaves me dumbfounded. Before coming to Moscow, I studied Russian a couple of hours a day for a month, mastered oft-repeated phrases about engineers fixing computers, the location of the Balshoi theatre, and a deciphering whether or not I could smoke here (wherever here was). People in England were impressed, but when I arrived, faced with real Russians, speaking in real time, all I could muster was “ya nye magu gavaritz pa Russki”: I can’t speak Russian.
Consider either of these obstacles, or better yet both, the math mind melt and the language lull, and think, for a tick, about the quandary of the time at which I’ve written for you to do so: 7:15 PM (Moscow time). Consider the massive variety of ways in which we daily, thoughtlessly, provide such mundane information: the ordering, the fractions, the pluses and minuses, the complex systems of twelve and sixty (such ugly divisors and numerators), of twenty-eight or thirty or thirty-one days, the to-s and from-s, the ‘til-s and after-s, how the years go by…
What time is it? It’s seven-fifteen, fifteen past seven. It’s a quarter past. A quarter past what? A quarter after seven. A quarter after? Yes, seven. Seven-fifteen. Of course, Russia uses a twenty-four clock, so the PM aspect requires the quick addition or subtraction of twelve, depending if you are giving or receiving the time, which brings our sum total of hours and minutes to nineteen-fifteen, a number that sounds horribly like a year in English. This year/time confusion, of course, is a result of the o’clock tag only being used for on the dot time assessments: seven o’clock, but never a quarter past seven o’clock or seven-fifteen o’clock.
That gets us past seven-fifteen, leading us to a whole new “set” of problems. But, now it’s 7:30, i.e. seven-thirty, i.e. a half past seven, i.e. half past, i.e. half seven (the truncated British version), i.e. nineteen-thirty minus twelve equals seven-thirty PM, which can also be formulated in the equation: If 13 < x and x < 24, with 24 = 0, then x – 12 = y PM. Then, a half an hour from now is 7:45, which seven-forty-five, but also a fifteen to eight, a quarter ‘til eight, conveniently leaving the seven presence completely out of the picture in total. Forget the time being a quarter to twenty, and by the way, why in the hell did the English-time gods opt for fractions in the mix.
Now, the date: February tenth, two thousand twelve (aka two-ten-twelve) or the tenth of February, twenty-twelve (aka the tenth of the second of the twelfth). In numerical from, you could get the American 2/10/12 or the British (world version) 10/2/12, allowing the possibility of October in February or February in October. It isn’t bad enough we’ve both clung stubbornly to miles, inches, pounds (both for money and weight), gallons, and such? Can’t we at least give people an ounce of hope by not having national date idiosyncrasies? Isn’t the language already complex enough with exceptions to the rule and expectations of universal fluency?
As a teacher, from time to time, I wonder if I’m asking too much. At thirty-something, fractions brought my wife and my mother to muttering tears. Still this year, after seven abroad, five months of which have been in Russia, I waffle at the sound of someone speaking to me in the native language of the country in which I live. However, standing before a class of elementary students, in a very digital world, I expect a six-year-old to read the hands of a clock and know that 7:15, seven-fifteen, a quarter after seven, fifteen past seven, and 19:15 are all the same thing. I guess it’s not too much to ask: I did teach them to count to twenty a couple of months ago.