Bruce in the Packet

65. The Keogh Mathematical Gene

I respect mathematics. I appreciate that it is the language that allows us to unlock secrets unrealized by the inborn pattern of our thinking, which responds only to the immediate stimuli of the observable universe. Mathematics is the music of the macrocosm and microcosm. I envy those who can hear it. But I am not entirely deaf. I did not hate math, but I did hate pencils.

In school we were always required to use pencils and my computations were always disqualified because I used a pen. It was necessary for me to be very selective in my choice of lead and paper; otherwise, the experience for me was like someone dragging their fingernails across a chalkboard. I rarely seemed to have the least irritating pencil or paper at hand. I suffered as a result of my quirk and my teachers would never make allowance for it.

There was another problem. I was never confident I remembered my times table correctly and, later, as the mathematics advanced, I continually had to rediscover the theorems more advanced minds put to memory. The result of my limitations is that computations took me longer and came out wrong because of errors of simple arithmetic. Still, I didn’t fear mathematics. The math work intrigued me because the solutions were always inherent in the problems. Without resorting to outside resources, one merely unfolded the puzzle to reach the answers. It was fun, but I was not fast, and there was always the disapproval of ink.

My passion for mathematics, albeit vicarious, was one more blossom of the many attractive features I associated to Ms Keogh, my cherished companion. Although, it would probably be more accurate to describe it as an unopened bud and not a blossom. She carries in her blood her father’s genes. Frank Richard Keogh, Ph.D. did his graduate studies in mathematics at Emmanuel College of the University of Cambridge. His field of research was influenced by G.M. Hardy and J.E. Littlewood and it was Littlewood who supervised his doctoral thesis.

Growing up in her father’s household, Ms Keogh was aware and exceedingly proud of her father, but the work he did was arcane magic to which she was not privy. Everyone was forbidden to enter her father’s study, even his wife who was a very organized person. Ms Keogh doesn’t even remember seeing the inside of her father’s study, but was given to understand it was a controlled chaos.

When Professor Keogh was teaching at the University of Swansea, having declined an offer from Aberdeen University because he didn’t care for Scotland’s winter, the family lived in Brynmill Crescent. His study was tucked away on the top floor, above all the hubbub of the household, which included Ms Keogh’s five siblings and paternal grandparents. It was his sacred space and Ms Keogh did not wish to break with taboo.

When later Professor Keogh was teaching at Royal Holloway, University of London, the family moved into a large Elizabethan house on Colne Brook in Wraysbury. It was known as Colne Cottage. This is where Ms Keogh came into her own. She was an independent eleven-year-old who begrudged the woman’s role, having to assist her mother, grandmother, and sister in all the household tasks, doing her brothers’ laundry, cleaning her brothers’ room, helping to cook their meals where the menfolk got the larger portion. Still, she adored the red brick house on Colne Brook. Its stables had been converted into a garage. It had old fruit trees and roses, and an ancient chestnut tree. She had her friend, Jane Anne, who was an only child and privileged to have a playhouse in the backyard and a flat bottom boat on the river.

Colne Cottage was Ms Keogh’s favorite home and here, too, Professor Keogh had his study that Ms Keogh does not remember at all. She was pursuing her autonomy and discovering the world about. In the meantime, her parents had converted the “girls” bathroom, breaking apart the cast iron tub in order to remove it bit by bit. They had carpeted the area and presto, a study.

The University of London offered Professor Keogh the Chair to the Mathematical Department. Meanwhile, he was invited to come teach at the University of Kentucky. Since they were working on research that interested him, he took the family, except for Ms Keogh’s two older brothers, to Lexington, Kentucky. While he was Visiting Foreign Professor at the University of Kentucky, Professor Keogh received a grant from the National Science Foundation. This is how Ms Keogh, my wife to be, first came to the United States as a thirteen-year-old. She hated it, but she didn’t think they were planning to stay.

Nor did they stay. Professor Keogh was invited by one of his Holloway students to come to teach in Turkey. Ms Keogh went to school in Ankara where she attended Ankara Koleji. She had only three classes that were not in English. One was Turkish literature and the teacher didn’t care if his foreign students could speak the language. He was satisfied that Ms Keogh just showed up and appeared to be paying attention. The second class was French. One day, early on, Ms Keogh arrived to class late. When asked why, she explained her reason in French. At this the teacher didn’t think Ms Keogh needed her class and she was transferred to art. It didn’t seem to matter that her art teacher could not instruct her in English. The teacher admired Ms Keogh’s work, would sit next to her and watch her draw. She gave Ms Keogh a very good grade.

It was, however, at Ankara Koleji that her education in mathematics was first stunted. Her mathematics teacher didn’t like her, possible didn’t like the “English”. The teacher would give the principal ideas in English, but she would then explain them in Turkish. Then this teacher would regularly pick the shy Ms Keogh to come to the board and demonstrate the mathematics, which she couldn’t do. The teacher would then humiliate her, in Turkish, to the class, explaining to the class that Ms Keogh’s father was a famous college professor in mathematics, yet his daughter couldn’t do the simplest calculations. It was all made worse because fifteen-year-old Ms Keogh was shy and had always done well. She had been a straight A student until this teacher flunked her.

After a year in Turkey, the family returned to Colne Cottage for a brief stay, to sell the property, then return to Kentucky.

Ms Keogh was taking chemistry at Tates Creek High School in Kentucky and was being introduced to quantum theory and balancing equations. She was doing her homework on the back porch steps at Bellafonte Drive. Having asked for his help, her father came out and looked at her work. He couldn’t help. He said he didn’t know anything about that kind of math. This surprised Ms Keogh. Her father’s expertise was Fourier series, Star Domains, Lebesgue integration, trigonometric series, univalent function, and the theory of functions of a complex variable.

The difficulties with balancing equations in chemistry soon passed and Ms Keogh even began enjoying it. She found that mathematics came naturally to her. She did well in geometry and algebra, but it all got turned around when she was sixteen and in the eleventh grade.

Ms Keogh entered trigonometry. She was doing well until the dress code changed. Her teacher was a white-haired woman with a conservative bent. The teacher declared, “I am sorry but you cannot come in here wearing trousers.” “But they changed the dress code!” “I don’t care about the dress code, you cannot come into my class wearing trousers.”

Ms Keogh took the matter to the office. This was Kentucky. They responded by reassigning her back into algebra. She was parked in a classroom of rowdy underachievers. I wonder what could have been.

I had the chance to meet Ms Keogh’s father several times before he died. One of our earliest meetings was at a café in New Hope, Pennsylvania. We sat outside under the sun, a warm day with the river reflecting the bright sunlight. Ms Keogh had told me in advance not to talk religion or politics, that it would be considered rude. He and I talked about nothing else. I think he liked me as much as I liked him.

Ms Keogh says, “He liked you because you were making me happy. You’ve been making me happy for thirty-three years.” Thirty-three! She’s still good at math.

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions,
he would be pleased to hear from you. 

Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.