Arithmetic, Catholicism, and Me

I had always been good at math until I went to Catholic school.

I had always been good at math until I went to Catholic school.

Having been raised Hindu by Indian parents and reaping the benefits of our associated stereotypical penchant for the subject, I wasn’t sure if there was some heavenly conspiracy that sought to hit me where it hurt most. Before Catholic school, I went to a public middle school in Houston and for the most part, was a pretty average student. I daydreamed all day and pretended that my pens were spaceships attacking each other. I was only caught once for making special effects noises out loud.

My dad was a mechanical engineer so he he couldn’t very well let me get away with coming up short in math. He spent time with me to go over quadratic formulas and simultaneous equations until I could practically do them as second nature. I would even go above and beyond when I calculated the circumference of circles by taking pi out to five decimals places. I was rocking it mathematically and maintaining the status quo for my people.

Though my parents continued to worry about my general detachment. I would rarely pay attention in class and never spoke up. One time in the 7th grade, another student sitting next to me asked me a question during class. As I whispered the answer to him, the teacher cut me off and gave me detention for talking in class. Everyone was staring at me, mostly out of shock that I had been pinched for such an offense. I was horrified. I was going to have to tell my parents that I got in trouble in school. I went home that day terrified of what punishment awaited me.

“Thank God,” my dad said. Not the response I was expecting. “Now I know you’re normal.” He chuckled as he walked off. That wasn’t at all the response I was expecting. I began to wonder what else I could get away with. After all, I didn’t really like doing all that homework. Smoking? Truancy? Start a gang? Start a turf war? Consolidate power? Rule over all illicit behavior in the western Houston area with an iron fist ensuring that everyone let me beat them in Street Fighter? I probably shouldn’t push it. Damn, talking in class that one time was nearly a gateway to a very different life. Nearly.

One day, my parents sat me down and asked me why I didn’t tell them about the regional math olympics that happened the past weekend at the George R Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston. Apparently Srinivas had gotten a silver medal in it and his parents were telling everyone, including my parents. “I don’t know. It was on a Saturday,” I said. I couldn’t really remember the entire conversation, except that they were pretty upset. I was a little more immersed in an episode of Saved by the Bell. I hope Jessie gets over her caffeine pill addiction.

Growing more terrified of my prospects, my parents pulled me out of the public school system and enrolled me into private school. It was an all boys Catholic school run by a bunch of hard knock gentlemen known as the Jesuits. It wasn’t called a high school, it was a college preparatory institution. They turned boys into men. I know that because that’s what they told us.

My freshman math class was geometry and our teacher was Father Abrinzo. He was probably about 50 years old and wore black pants and a black button down short sleeve shirt with a white Roman collar. He had an athletic build and booming voice that commanded the room the moment he walked in. He also had a teaching style that I hadn’t yet encountered in any class before. He would often cold call us with seemingly spontaneous questions while lecturing. This wasn’t very compatible with my daydreaming behavior.

On the very first day, he began our voyage into geometry by talking about the early Greek pioneers of the subject. I wonder why people don’t name their kids like that anymore.

“Hey man, you seen Pythagoras?”

“Hey Theodosius, I saw him, Euclid, and Archimedes down at Little Ceasars. They were hanging with Zenodorus.”

“Yeah? Have you seen Zen’s sister, Hypatia of Alexandria? Damn.”

“I know dude, I’m gonna totally ask her to prom.”



“What tools do you think they used?”

Oh shit.

I snapped into reality to find a sea of eyeballs staring right at me. What are we talking about? Did he mean what did the Greeks use when they were figuring out geometry? That had to be it. I could ask but I think we were only five minutes into class and that would be a pretty bad start. How would a bunch of guys wearing robes wearing grass wreaths discuss right angles, parallel lines, and congruent triangles? How did they best draw out and communicate these innovative ideas with one another in a way that would stand the test of time for centuries? A voice whispered behind me, “sand and sticks.” Well that sounded reasonable enough.

“Sand and sticks.”

Did I just say that? The entire class burst out into laughter while Father Abrinzo’s face kept a zen like stoic expression about it. I’d been had. Hazed in geometry.

“So do you think that they advanced mathematical thinking by drawing in something as fleeting as sand?” he pressed on. I had already lost all composure and was completely unsure of what was coming out of my mouth. “No your, um, holiness. I mean, your honor, err, fatherness.” I clumsily answered. Unfortunately, only being two hours into Catholic school, I hadn’t yet learned the proper terms for priests yet. The class re-erupted back into full swing laughter again.

“Father Abrinzo will do. And we’re talking about the ancient Greeks, not the ancient cavemen. How about compasses and protractors?” he answered in question like format. I looked at my desk and at the metal compass and plastic protractor that my dad got me from Walgreens. Huh, I guess that makes more sense.

“Maybe you shouldn’t listen to all the voices that creep into your ear, Monty.” he said as he gave Eric, the whisper’s owner behind me a cold look. I would have turned to look at him but I was frozen solid. Eventually, the stares from everyone else in the room faded away and we continued on our journey into the Greeks using things other than sand and sticks to develop what would become modern geometry.

For the rest of the year, I stared intently at the front of the classroom. I tried to hang on every word while clenching my protractor and compass in both hands. Like a man. I spent every night reading the textbook to know what we were going to talk about the next day. I would have some idea what Father Abrinzo was going to ask. I jumped on the early easy questions to avoid getting cold called like that again. There weren’t anymore spaceship pens attacking each other with the appropriate ‘pew pew pew’ gun blasts raging through the galaxy.

I never had another incident like that again but I was certainly more wound up than I’d ever been. Everyday in class, I was on high alert. No one was to be trusted. Any of them, even my friends, could be one of them. Patrick’s hand has a bandage covering the back side of it. What’s he been up to? Eric was nodding off. Scheming, no doubt, takes a lot of effort. Sean has a nasty cough. Something he picked up in the jungles of Southeast Asia?

“Hey Monty, can you I borrow your pencil for a second?”


“Ok, then. I’ll just ask Jeremy.”

I made it through geometry at whatever cost of my overall demeanor. That summer, my family moved from Houston to Corpus Christi and decided to keep me going in the Catholic high school system. I traded the Jesuits for an army of nuns. My sophomore year was Algebra and Sister Catherine was a big change from Father Abrizio.

Sister Catherine was nearly 60 years old and spoke with an Irish accent that I was sure was fake. It was way too close to what I’d heard in movies and TV shows. In spite of her age, she moved with a certain grace and spoke with a subtle wit. One day at school, we had a funny hat day where any of us could wear whatever hat we wanted. I don’t remember many people doing it but someone asked Sister Catherine if she ever wore funny hats.

“I wear a funny hat every day.” she said.

I got the impression that this class may be a little less intense than geometry so I can probably loosen up a bit. In fact, I let it slide so far that one day I showed up to class not having done my homework. I think this was the first step in my eventual descent into starting rival gang factions and declaring a new world order. I’ll have to be careful.

“Did anyone have questions about the homework last night?” Sister Catherine asked in her sing songy Irish accent. My only real reference for someone talking like that was that cartoon leprechaun hocking his particular brand of cereal. No one seemed to be raising their hands so hopefully we’d just move on to whatever was next and I’d be in the clear.

The girl who sat in front of me continuously flicked her rather long hair behind her almost always crashing into my face. I was bobbing and weaving left and right to avoid her hair as it whipped at me. I had my hands up in boxing formation because Master Kim had told me to always protect the ribs. I was moving like a butterfly and…



“Did you do the homework last night?”

Oh shit.

My new hair trigger response I gained from Father Abrinzo’s class kicked in. “Yes.” I lied. Hopefully this was just some kind of survey she was going to take of the entire class.

“Well, good then. Do number one on the board.” At this point, I realized I had pretty much nowhere to go with my lie. The prospect of getting in front of everyone was starting to freak me out. Again. “Oh. Right. Actually, I didn’t get quite get that far,” I said completely unsure of where this would go.

“Oh, didn’t quite get that far? Didn’t quite get as far as number one, did you?” she asked to a room full of increasingly poorly suppressed chuckles. If someone didn’t let the top off soon, there might be an explosion. Sister Catherine leaned in closer to me. I sensed the hammer was about to drop. The only thing keeping me from completely losing it was the sweet tones of that folksy Irish accent.

“Monty, are you on strike?” she asked. I was baffled and didn’t know at all how to respond. “I… uh, what?”

Sister Catherine walked back away from pointing randomly around the room. “Well, I don’t see any picket signs so I really can’t tell,” she explained. Picket signs would certainly have been a reasonable way of explaining any in-class labor disputes I might have been having. I should make some in case I need them in the future.

“So, are you on strike?” she asked again, though with a rather large smile on her face. Again, just like that first time in geometry, there was a burst of laugher. Except it was from me. Sister Catherine was weird. My kind of weird. For the first time that I can remember, in class, with the spotlight on me, I felt unusually comfortable.

I picked up my textbook, opened to the page with problem number one, and walked to the board. With the class watching me, I picked up the chalk and started writing out the problem on the board ready to start solving it.

Calm and relaxed.