Mom and math

Throughout my formative school-age years, my mother was very engaged in my academic career.

She expected her three boys to make all A’s and excel in everything we put our minds to. A mathematician, she worked to ensure that we take the highest levels of math available to us, believing that the knowledge and the resilience built by those courses would make us better people.

When I transferred into Lake Wales High School at the beginning of 10th grade, she advised me to take the math I needed in order to complete Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. OK, it wasn’t really advice as much as it was a statement: you will take the math you need in order to take calculus your senior year. She made it her mission to see to it I would follow through. It wasn’t easy for her or for me.

Math teacher Sharon Wallace holds papers while standing in front of a chalkboard.
Mom’s favorite class to teach was Honors Geometry, but she really excelled as a math tutor to her math-challenged son. This was an action shot of her from the 1988 Lake Wales High School yearbook.

First, I was transferring in from a private school that lacked the resources or academic rigor in mathematics to give me a good foundation. I took Algebra I in 9th grade, while most of my peers in public schools who were aiming for Calculus their senior year took it in the 8th grade. I had a lackluster teacher who taught me very little of the algebraic foundational principles I would need to master in order to take advanced math courses.

Second, math was not my best subject. I made A’s in math. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do well, it just required effort. I still have vivid memories of workbook pages of repetitive math problems of long division, complex multiplication and even addition and subtraction with large numbers. It was tedious and boring and required focus I didn’t want to give to it. I can still hear Mom, in her frustration with my lack of progress on the homework in a very out-of-character outburst, “Ninny! Ninny! Ninny!” She was right. I was being a ninny. I needed to learn discipline to complete a task rather than whine about its tedium and difficulty.

Third, in order to catch up and get on track to take calculus, I would have to take both Algebra II and Geometry in 10th grade. Without the benefit of a strong foundation in algebra, this was a daunting task. Adding to the challenge was Mom’s insistence that I be in the honors sections of both courses. To her, I was an honors student and should be in honors classes. She made it her personal mission to battle the guidance counselors and administrators until they put me in those classes. To her credit, when school started and the homework piled up, she was with me every step of the way to help make up for my lack of algebra knowledge.

Fourth, I was transferring into the large public high school after spending eight of the previous 10 years in small, private schools. There was something about a big, public school that was intimidating. I had one friend who was in a similar boat who had gone to the same private schools I had from the time I moved to Florida at the start of 7th grade. I had one friend while most everyone else had long established relationships dating back to elementary and middle school. I wanted to play sports and take advantage of other extra-curricular activities, too, placing even more pressure on myself to excel in every area of teenage life.

The double math classes made socialization that much harder because I was with my on-track 10th grade peers in Algebra II and with the 9th grade honors math students in Geometry. It’s hard to say I felt like I was “left back” a year in school because, after all, it was an Honors Geometry class. The freshmen were bright and engaged students. They happened to be just as new to Lake Wales High School as I was. It was just a little socially awkward.

Fifth, although I was extremely goal-oriented, it was hard to keep my eyes on the prize when I understood the process as undergoing extreme math torture for the right to get more torture. Giving up was never an option, but my sophomore year of high school was not a cake walk. I learned in that year to trust Mom, not only for her understanding of mathematic principles, but also her wisdom in seeing this goal through to completion.

As it turned out, after earning A’s and B’s in both Algebra II and Geometry that year, it got easier my junior year. I got on track for Calculus, so I was with my grade-level honors student peers in Trigonometry first semester and Analytical Geometry second semester. With Mom’s help, I had learned the Algebra I had missed in 9th grade, and though I still had to work hard at it, my grades were consistently A’s throughout the year.

When I made it to AP Calculus, I knew I was biting off another big challenge, but I was buoyed by the knowledge I had already survived the worst. I focused on passing the AP exam, earning college credit and reducing or eliminating my need to take another math class ever again.

Mom knew I wasn’t headed to a career in math, but the wisdom of her insistence I get AP Calculus in high school cannot be disputed. I managed to pass the AP Calculus exam and earn a year’s worth of college math credit. I did not have to take another math class every again…  or, at least until I enrolled in the MBA program 10 years after I graduated college. When we derived formulas for calculating risk in investments in my Corporate Finance class, my calculus came back to me — not so much like riding a bike but more like a ghost haunting me from the pages of a textbook.

Even more valuable than the quadratic formula or Pythagorean theorem was the character-building that took place. I learned resilience. I learned perseverance. I learned how to push through mental blocks and cope with frustration. I matured. I experienced the joy and exhilaration of completing difficult tasks. I experienced one of the most powerful feelings a human being can have: accomplishment.

Thank you, Mom, for the advice/command/willing it to be. Math did not kill me. It made me stronger. You deserve all the credit.

Glory days

Our middle son, Harris, started his senior year of high school this week. We joke all the time about how sad it would be if high school really did turn out to be a person’s “glory days.”

He’s looking forward to a good senior year, but he’s also hopeful about college, graduate school, starting his career and making a difference in the world. All this talk with Harris about the future reminded me that I’ve had some great times in life, and while they may not have been “glory days,” my senior year in high school was pretty awesome.

The culmination of my high school career was a season of peak happiness. I’m sure there were academic struggles as I wrestled with Advanced Placement Calculus, but I remember my senior year at Lake Wales High School fondly for its blend of athletics, academics, career discovery, social opportunities and accolades. After transferring in as a sophomore, my senior year was the moment I felt like I belonged.

Lance Wallace in Highlander football uniform with his hand on his football helmet
Now doesn’t that football star strike fear in your heart with that game-face scowl?

I finally played a full season of football for the Fighting Highlanders after missing out the previous seasons for logistical or health reasons (see last week’s post about my bout with mono.) I had played basketball since transferring to LWHS, but my strongest athletic desire since growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s under the enchantment of the Dallas Cowboys was to play varsity football. I tried out for quarterback in the spring of my junior year. The coaching staff wisely suggested I switch positions to tight end after it became obvious that I was not cut out to run a veer-option offense. That decision enhanced my playing time and my sense of camaraderie as I bonded with the offensive linemen. Together we battled the Florida heat and humidity, the ubiquitous gnats and our weekly opponents from around Polk County.

It was also fun to confound people who had stereotyped my interests based solely on my academic success. A girl told me during AP English one gameday Friday when I was wearing my jersey to classes, “You play football? You are a weird nerd.”

Then there was the particularly hot and sweaty afternoon when I was running drills with the receivers coach. Coach Warren paused in the middle of the drill and said, “Lance, what are you doing out here? You writing a book about this like that George Plimpton guy?”

I have always enjoyed defying social expectations. Even though I was far from the biggest or strongest guy on the team, the coaches graded me the highest rated lineman, hitting 97 percent of my blocks, in our first game, an upset of nationally-ranked Auburndale High School. I enjoyed the physical challenge, and overcoming obstacles of all kinds taught me resilience.

I had a good year in the classroom, too. Maintaining straight “A’s” all year, I finished my high school career ranked no. 3 in my class, the highest ranked male student, as my mother liked to brag. My choices of involvement ranged from Academic Team to football and basketball to drama led to my selection by my classmates as “Mr. Senior.”

My job as an intern and high school columnist at The Daily Highlander provided another source of satisfaction that year. It set up my career in journalism and communications by exposing me to new ideas, challenging me to write clearly and quickly and teaching me the meaning of ethics and professionalism.

The opportunity also introduced me to a recent college graduate out of Baylor named Bob Perkins. He came to The Highlander to be the sports editor, and because Lake Wales wasn’t exactly a hopping place for singles, we struck up a friendship. He taught me how to drive his stick-shift Ford Mustang when he broke his ankle playing basketball. Over time, I recruited him to our church.

We watched movies and ate pizza. We played basketball on the outdoor court next to the lake. We chipped golf balls in the grass by the walking path. He was a friend and mentor, and we’re still friends to this day.

Having my own car (the previously documented ’78 Nova), dating, graduating in the former Passion Play Amphitheater – or “downtown Jerusalem” as I like to tell people – all of it combined to make my senior year of high school some of the most “glorious” times of my life.

Football dreams

Every August I have the same dream/nightmare. It varies a little, but the essence remains the same each year.

In the dream, I’m back in high school participating in two-a-day football practices again as a member of the Lake Wales Fighting Highlanders.

Lance in football uniform
When your mascot is a man in a skirt, you have to compensate by scowling.

Similar to the college nightmares people report having about not showing up for a class for an entire semester and then suddenly having to take the final exam, this dream takes me back to an impressionable time in my life when I tackled a challenge that was both immensely difficult and personally rewarding.

Much has been written about the elevated status of football in Southern culture, and my formative years spent in two football hotbeds – Texas and Florida – instilled a desire to prove my mettle on the gridiron.

Playing football in Central Florida is incredibly difficult. It is hot almost the entire season, and the afternoon rains don’t cool things off as much as add unbearable humidity. My annual August dream evokes memories of lying in grass, soggy with dew, in full pads, stretching my hamstrings, staring through my facemask at a beautiful sunrise as temperatures climbed into the 80s. I simultaneously loved and hated it.

Some years my dream is that I still have eligibility, and like the episode of “My Name is Earl” in which Earl’s grown behemoth of a brother, Randy, gets to go back to high school to try and score a touchdown in a game, I get to come back and play, armed with adult wisdom if not actual physical size and skill.

Other years, I wake up in terror thinking I’m going to have to survive the heat and humidity, getting drinking water only as a reward and wearing 40 pounds of gear in extreme temperatures.

But I mostly reflect positively on my two-a-day memories. Like the day when Coach Hale, perched in his aluminum tower above the field called out to defensive lineman Patrick Kessler who had removed himself from wind sprints.

“Coach, I’m going to puke,” wheezed Kessler who was doubled over on the sideline.

“Puke on the run, Kessler! Puke on the run!”

Forrest Jones
Forrest Jones

Two-a-day practices can be deadly. In the last few weeks, Georgia high school football players Forrest Jones of Locust Grove High School and D.J. Searcy of Fitzgerald High School, both 16, died after pre-season drills. In both cases, heat played a factor and the highly-specific heat restrictions on Georgia high school football practices didn’t come into play because they were involved in voluntary, pre-season workouts. Searcy was even out of the state at the time attending a pre-season camp in north Florida.

D.J. Searcy
D.J. Searcy

These types of deaths are increasing. A recent Reuters news story about deaths included the findings of University of Georgia associate professor Andrew Grundstein that 123 players died from heat exhaustion between 1960 and 2009. Grundstein’s research on hyperthermia revealed that the annual death rate has increased from an average of about one per year in the 1980s to a 2.8 yearly average in the last 15 years.

He attributes this increase to higher annual temperatures and bigger players. Grundstein told Reuters that 95 percent of those players were overweight, 60 percent died after heat exposure in the morning hours, 85 percent were linemen and a full two-thirds of them died in the first two weeks of the preseason.

It makes me immensely sad for the families of these young men, both of whom had dreams of playing football as a career. While I grew out of those dreams, for many, their futures are predicated on how hard they work in those sauna-like practices each summer.

As we learn more about the science of sport and physiology, maybe it will become self-evident that dressing big boys in layers of equipment and sending them out to perform strenuous exercise in extreme heat is harmful rather than helpful.

I find it interesting that a key point in the negotiations of the new labor agreement in the National Football League was ending two-a-day practices in summer training camps. Even the pros don’t do it anymore. Maybe the administrators who regulate high school athletics will soon come to a similar conclusion.

In the meantime, my heart goes out to the Jones and Searcy families. Their dreams have turned to nightmares. May God be with them as they grieve.