Trig or Treat

B picMs. Matthews was the high school Trig teacher. She was quiet but firm—somewhat understated in demeanor with her low voice—but enthusiasm for math vibrated beneath the surface of her mildly stoic way.

One test came back with every problem wrong since I had mislabeled the sides of the right triangle that has sides of 1, 2, and square root of 3. Having drawn only one triangle to use for all of the calculations, everything depended on starting right. Reversing the two longer sides meant a moment of teen drift (which some say can grow into adult drift).

Square root of two as the hypotenuse of a righ...

After a moment of shock, reeling from prospects of a zero test score, Ms. Matthews called me up to her desk when the class got busy on the next exercise. She had a faint, pithy smile that radiated compassion as she explained that all calculations had been performed correctly, just not using the triangle’s correct value for each of its sides. “You were consistent,” she said, “and so you made an A on the test, but be more careful next time.”

This is the moment in the course that stands out in memory. All else long ago faded, except of course Ms. Matthews the person.

Greater Winnipeg Tentative Airport Plan (1946)

Greater Winnipeg Tentative Airport Plan (1946) (Photo credit: Manitoba Historical Maps)

Twenty –five years later in 1991, during a lull at work in a lab for testing asphalt samples from trucks hauling the asphalt to Fort Campbell for construction of an aircraft runway, I noticed a book on surveying on the supervisor’s desk and looked through it. It was trig. What a late awakening to what had only left an imprint in high school as mathematical abstraction. “So that’s what they use this stuff for!”

No wonder the blue collar work force used to chide folks who only had “book learning.”


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