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A numbers game

A numbers game

Bill Perkins mug

Bill Perkins

I was 17 when I finished high school, simply because of the time of year I was born. But I could have graduated at 18, had I flunked the fifth grade like Mrs. Wiggins suggested.

It wasn’t that I was a moron, although most fifth-graders, at one time or another, are guilty of doing moronic things. My problem was arithmetic, or I should say mathematics, because fifth grade is when all the trouble starts, numbers-wise. Arithmetic got sophisticated in the fifth grade, and I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. I remember the classroom at the end of the hall across from Mrs. Trotter’s room — the scene of my paddling, but that’s another story. I’d shuffle toward Mrs. Wiggins’ class with the dread of a condemned man down the hallway past Mr. Leroy spreading spinach-green sweeping stuff in front of his wide dust-mop, and I’d swear I heard tin cups against the bars and I slunk in and took my seat. I hated math class, and it hated me back.

I was sure to be condemned to repeat fifth grade, but somehow I squeaked my way out of it. But like Ernest and Julio’s wine, math remembers.

Back in the school days, there was always a lot of talk about your Permanent Record, and I felt I was marked as a math dunce. Turns out, the Permanent Record lie was a ruse to keep kids in line. No one would know I almost flunked fifth-grade – except that it’s now in the paper.

While I stumbled over every subsequent math class, I never got it. Sine, cosine, tangent, isosceles — it’s all Latin to me.

However, the permanent mark lives, metaphorically speaking. I soon became obsessive about math, and even more so after I realized that mathematics is either the basis for literally everything, or the language we use to make sense of the world. I’m certainly no expert, but I suspect it’s both.

I do math in my head constantly. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I remember riding in the back seat of a car driven by a friend of my sister well before I was old enough to drive. The girl’s family had apparently bought the car overseas during military service and shipped it home, because the speedometer was marked with kilometers per hour. I discovered this when I wigged out when I saw we were going 80 down Park Avenue. She told me it was kilometers, and I did a quick calculation, although realizing we were only going 50 in a 30 mph zone was of little comfort.

I count the letter frames on Wheel of Fortune to try to calculate the odds of someone winning a bonus round. “I don’t know,” I’ll say when only a few light up. “He still needs 67 percent right.”

Every now and then you’ll see a story in the news that resonates, and one last week struck a chord with me. It was about a Georgia man who received his final pay almost four months after he left a job, and when he did, it was 90,000 greasy pennies in a pile at the end of his driveway.

My first reaction was to determine it was $900. The next — how big might a pile of 90,000 pennies be?

If my math is right, an orderly, 90,000-penny pile measuring one foot wide and one foot deep would stand 21 inches tall. In other words, a one-foot cube of pennies would equal $512. Another not-quite 9 inches of pennies on top would take care of the other $388. The pile would weigh roughly 600 pounds, depending on the composition of the metal in each penny.

However, these particular pennies were covered in grease, which would make them considerably heavier and maddening to stack.

By my calculations, the former employer who paid the man this way went to a lot of trouble to create a huge deficit in his own character ledger.

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of the Dothan Eagle and can be reached at or 334-712-7901. Support the work of Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at

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