Why didn’t Sister Bernita respond to my question this way?

St. Edwards School and Church

St. Edwards School and Church

Poor Sister Bernita, in charge of 60 squirming first and second graders in St. Edwards School, Twin Falls, Idaho, 1948. As the oldest child of the nuns’ doctor, I was favored, sat in one of the front seats. I was also identified as “smart,” except for mathematics. Why, I wondered, was it so hard for me? What’s it about? What’s it for? Nervous and agitated, even terrified! — I raised my hand.

“But . . . but . . . what is a NUMBER?”

Sister Bernita turned from the blackboard, where she had been adding or subtracting for us, and looked at me. Kept looking. She stared at me, for what seemed an eternity. My face flushed. So awful! So ashamed! I shouldn’t have asked that question!

Finally, she found her voice.

“That,” she pronounced (probably internally flustered), “is not a question, dear.”

From then on, my curiosity shut down. Mathematics became a floating world, divorced from my experience, my senses, the natural world around me.

Had Sister Bernita been inspired to show the fibonacci sequence to us — especially how it is found in nature, everywhere, at all scales — can you imagine how the mysteries of mathematics would have ignited our hearts and minds?

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2 Responses to Why didn’t Sister Bernita respond to my question this way?

  1. Verity says:

    I totally agree with you. Why don’t they teach that at the earliest opportunity? The way they teach arithmetic and then mathematics just alienates all but the brightest (or perhaps more motivated) pupils.

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