At the math club

The other day, while looking for stamps in my desk drawer, I found my old calculator. The one I used all through high school, the one I bought, or was told to buy, because I was a math guy. The one that saved me in my high school final exam.

Up until high school, I had been a languages guy, but once it was time to graduate to high school, I was told it’d be too much to try to do both math and physics, and still take another language. 

So I dropped my German studies – I took our German teacher’s house burning down to the ground as a sign – and bought a calculator. A “scientific calculator”, as it says on it.


The calculator was by my side through those three years, always in my bag whether I was using a blue cloth backback or a messenger bag. It’s one of those calculators that was, even then, referred to as having as much computing power than the NASA computers that were used to get man on the moon.

It was a major investment, both symbolically and financially. It was such a major investment that it wasn’t enough that I wrote my name on its stylish brown cover, but Dad also engraved a marking on the backside of my scientific calculator. You can’t see it unless you remove the calculator from the said cover, but once you do and flip it over, you’ll see my name engraved in Dad’s cursive style – together with my social security number.

Now, that’s official.

Looking at the calculator now makes me smile, and then it makes me frown, as I realize how much of my math skills I’ve forgotten. I’m not (yet) at a point where seeing “pi” makes me hungry, but I can’t recite the first twelve decimals anymore, either.

The SIN, COS, TAN buttons do make me think of sin and tanning and my first instinct these days is to type in “words” like “77345” (or “58008”) and then flip the calculator over to see what it says.

Oh, my trusty sidekick, circa 1984. Actually, it’s not even circa 1984. It is exactly 1984, a time long gone. A world in which I hadn’t see Back to the Future yet, hadn’t still understood what a genius Prince is, was drawing Ghostbusters logos on chalkboards at school, was worried about Reagan, and still dreamt about becoming a pro hockey player.

I know it was 1984 for a fact, because when you close the stylish brown cover, you’ll see an Edmonton Oilers sticker that says “Go 2 it”, a reference to the fact that the Oilers were trying to repeat their Stanley Cup run from 1984. That winter there had been a junior national team tournament in our hometown, and Dad had met the Oilers scout at a local nightclub.

Not sure whether he was trying to get me signed, but at least he got me the scout’s business card and two Oilers stickers. One landed on my bike, and the other on my calculator, my two most precious possessions.

That was my world.

The other day, Son asked me to help him with his math homework. Now, that doesn’t happen often, so I jumped at the chance to show him what the old man can do.

I was a little hesitant, because since he almost never asks me to help him with math, I had no idea how advanced the fifth-graders’ math is so I grabbed my calculator with me.

I put it on Son’s desk, and leaned over him to read his problem. Then I opened the brown stylish cover, and pressed “ON” on my scientific calculator.

Nothing happened. The batteries must have died some time in the 1990s.

Fortunately, Son’s problem was just a basic linear equation with one variable, so instead of my calculator, I grabbed a pen and paper and scribbled as fast as I could, while explaining the method to him at the same time.

“So, you see, the loaf of bread, is … 7 euro, and then … so, like this, and you wanna buy just two thirds of it, which is … like so … and … and … take out the zeroes… and so … Get it?”

He did, so I walked back into my little office, played “Ghostbusters” on my laptop, and made a note to get new batteries to the calculators. Seventh grade is here sooner that I think.

How does that make you feel?