{Math} A times tables memory.

I have a distinct memory of being 8 years old, or so, and being handed one of those worksheets where they ask you to multiply numbers up through 12x12, and being viscerally disgusted by the implied pedagogy of it. That was over a hundred things you were asking me to memorize. On my own time. The whole reason I rush through my school work is so I don’t have to do anything when I get home. I don’t know if eight year old me swore, but this was definitely a “Screw you” moment for him.

But he actually ended up being able to do that sheet pretty quickly, at least compared to most of the rest of the class. There were a few kids who were faster than me, but I got the impression they were dumb enough to have to practice this instead of watching Ed, Edd ‘n’ Eddy at home. Or worse, they actually did memorize this stuff, instead of practice to get quick with the multiply-numbers-in-your-head algorithm like I did. (Because of course nobody else in the class would be doing it the same way I did, just much faster. But eight-year-olds aren’t known to have particularly nuanced concepts of self that can gracefully accept that there are other people naturally much better than them at what they do best.)

Later on, we moved up to multiplying arbitrary two-digit-by-one-digit numbers, and then two-digit-by-two-digit numbers. (I didn’t piece together how uncommon this was until a few years later.) Everyone who outpaced me in the times-tables speed tests were now far, far below me; meanwhile, I just had to chain my little “multiply-small-numbers” mental motion to a few “add-up-the-sums” motions. 76 * 89 = 7*8*100 + 6*8*10 + 7*9*10 + 6*9. I felt like I was so clever. I started to take pride in the fact that I was now leading the pack, even though I had told myself before that I didn’t care!

That is, of course, until the kids who were originally faster than me also realized how to perform that mental motion, and then they leapt past me in speed with the combined force of split-second memory of times tables and a quick ability to perform algorithms.

I think by the time we were finished with the lightning round worksheet practice, I was in the bottom quarter of the class for speed, and when I did push myself to speed up, I’d start making careless mistakes like mixing up which one of 6*7 and 7*7 was 42 and which was 49, again?

Later in my mathematical pedagogy, I am taking a Real Analysis course. There are two midterms in this course. The first one I did not prepare for at all, falling into my old 8-year-old failure mode: “If I can’t just compute the answer on the spot to the question, I sort of deserve to fail, don’t I?” I got a B-, in the lower half of the class.

The second one, I reminded myself of the times tables kids. I got an A.