Work of Art - Holding up the line

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By Art Trujillo

She was friendly, polite and courteous and seemingly in control. But, she kept slowing down the line.

Before we analyze the young local checker, let me give you my take on causing stoppages, or even slowages. I say with no hesitation that I would rather paste my nostrils together with Crazy Glue than to hold up a line.

You know what I mean:

If I can’t locate that last letter to drop into the mobile mailbox, I’ll drive off, perhaps circle back and do it right. If I’ve picked up an item that lacks a price tag and will thus necessitate having the checkout person go to the back of the store to check the price, or — worse — summon the manager, I’ll simply decide I don’t need the item.

And if too many cars drive  toward me when I’m attempting a left turn onto National from Seventh Street, I’ll go straight, circle the block and try again.

That differs from others who’ll wait for three light changes with a zillion cars behind them, until they can turn left; or those who demand the convening of the Second Vatican Council to determine whether that roll of paper towels sells for $2.29 instead of $2.25, or the person who hassles the clerk who won’t accept a check for liquor or a lottery ticket.

So, back to the friendly clerk: She was holding up the line on my account because of the lack of mathematical skills alluded to in a recent op-ed piece by Highlands professor Gregg Turner.

But let’s complete the explanation about the checker first.

Her register showed that I owed $10.55. I pulled out a twenty and a one so I would get a ten and change back and let the store keep its singles. I don’t like being like the flea-market early-bird who whips out a fifty to buy a twenty-five-cent paperback.

Several times, checkers have seemed flummoxed, returning the one I gave and making change from the twenty, loading me up with small bills I was trying to avoid.

Surely, subtracting 10 and change from 21 should be simple enough. The checker whipped out her calculator and tried to figure out the change.

That caused a delay, which means, no matter what, the customer gets the blame — from other once-patient patrons in line.  I told the checker, “You owe me $10.45,” but that went ignored.

Once, my family took our birthday boy to a local restaurant, where the place used to give a discount commensurate with the person’s age. It was our son’s 25th birthday, and accordingly, we/he expected a discount of 25 percent: a $10 meal would have cost $7.50.

The waitress — calculator at the ready —  simply subtracted 25 cents from the total. Rather than a reasonable percentage discount, we were comped a whole quarter. Trying to explain the mathematics of the transaction was fruitless.

The waitress showed us several times what numbers she had crunched to give us that total, so our opinion didn’t matter. Not to demand a discount due us, but merely to make our point, we spoke to the restaurant owner several days later, explaining that digits which show up on a calculator usually don’t lie, but if the user punches the minus key when it should be the percentage key, customers tend to leave perplexed.

Gregg Turner’s opening paragraph in the Sept. 21 issue of the Optic began with a simple question: “OK, so what’s 50 percent of 20?” I believe he’s correct in positing that so many people struggle with simple math, inasmuch as all he got was silence.

But I also wonder how many of his Highlands students really didn’t know the answer. Could they have suspected a trick question? Were some just naturally shy?

When I was a student in a senior level class, I had a professor whose popularity dropped many points in one day.

Here’s what happened: In a senior class, restricted to majors in a particular academic field, the professor expressed that last year’s class (taking the same course) disappointed her.

Why? She told us she’d asked the previous year’s class, “How many of you have heard of Adam and Eve? Raise your hands.” The prof said that in the class of around 20, only two hands went up. To her, that indicated generalized ignorance.

She added that she believed few of those students, senior majors, even belonged in college.

The teacher was wont to using the word “slash” when it came to grading term papers. She invoked that word to punctuate how she must have searched for every conceivable error. Remember, if a professor writes “trite” on the margin of your paper, and subtracts points for your clichédom, it’s not a quantitative, mathematical issue that a student can successfully challenge.    

As I look back, I wonder what would have happened if, as a slightly older student, I’d been in that class and had answered something like, “Adam and Eve? Weren’t they the Highlands homecoming king and queen?” “Hmm. Weren’t they the ones who funded Columbus’s trip to the New World?” Or “Weren’t Adam and Eve on the late-night show last night?”

Whereas I agree with Prof. Turner’s conclusion that many college students are woefully unprepared for certain courses, I wonder whether the awkward silence, the looking down at the floor were, for some students, the fear the professor might have been asking a trick question.

• • •

I had two students who went into full panic mode, perhaps 20 years ago, when I introduced basic math concepts in a journalism course. Writing for a newspaper demands a rudimentary knowledge of math, especially when one covers public affairs, with budgets, raises, inflation rates, mill levies and deficits.

I wasn’t able to relieve the math anxiety these two coeds underwent. I trust that Prof. Turner will be more successful with his students.

And I applaud his dedication and adherence to high standards.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.