Blood, toil, sweat and math

Workout: A Howard County contest gives a group of high school students a chance to exercise their minds and fit in.

November 21, 1999|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The players are gathering in the cafeteria at Howard High School.

They're tossing book bags under the tables and warming up for the after-school contest. They're calm; some are playing card games. They're relaxed; practice has prepared them.

There are no quip-happy announcers, no peppy cheerleaders in dazzling costumes, no hip-hop music blaring, no painted fans cheering wildly in the stands.

But excitement is growing. Adrenalin is flowing. The pregame show is going on inside the minds of the more than 200 students here.

The Howard County Mathematics League monthly meet is about to begin Nov. 10, as it has since the 1970s. No brawn. No net. No ball. No arena. But plenty of blood, sweat and tears.

L-l-let's get ready to number!

First half. Question 1: A lattice point has integer coordinates. Define the distance between any two lattice points in the plane to be the length of any shorter path from one to the other along lines parallel to the coordinate axes. If n is a positive integer, determine, in terms of n, the number of lattice points whose distance from the origin is n.

Competitors from the county's 10 high schools quietly begin to figure the problem individually, one of two in the first set. Correct answers count toward the team total.

They have 10 minutes.

Around the room, students draw figures on colored paper. The lines and dots begin to form targets, mosquito netting, envelopes, amoebas.

Flakes of spent eraser fly off tabletops like sawdust.

Question reader Russ Baker, a math professor at Howard Community College, calls out the two-minute warning to players.

Pencils wave faster. Heavy sighs rise from the playing field. Girls nervously grab chunks of their hair.

"Stop!" Baker calls.

The players confer.

"What did you get?" they yell across tables.

Baker announces the answer. It's 4n.

Arms shoot up in the air, making touchdown gestures around the room.

"Yes!" shouts Howard sophomore Chang Liu. He high-fives a teammate. Between the cheers, there are small outbursts of swearing. Athletics of the mind are not for the faint of heart.

There are six questions altogether. Three sets of two questions. Ten minutes for each set.

It's intense. The questions test knowledge to the trigonometry level, and math league advisers say the problems are difficult.

As the contest continues, the teams' coaches stand on the sidelines. The Wilde Lake team coach paces the cafeteria like Phil Jackson worried about Michael Jordan. Except this is Charlie Koppelman and the star player is Wilde Lake junior Willie Meyerson, the top math scorer in the county.

"My star missed one, and it's going to kill him. It's just going to kill him," Koppelman says. "He's going to be inconsolable now."

He runs his hands through his hair and gazes at the scoreboard.

"Huuuh, boy," he sighs.

Standards are high

The players, however, are harder on themselves than their coaches are. Atholton team captain Michael Wu, a senior, can't stop shaking his head at the off day he's having.

"I cannot believe this," he says, watching competing high schools' scores creep past his team's. "Mentally, I'm just not sharp today. I'm not reading the problems clearly."

After missing Question Four about a circle with a 1-centimeter circumference in a plane rolling around an octagon, Mount Hebron freshman Nick Anderson bangs his fist on the table. Girls at the table look at Anderson sympathetically. It's his first meet and he isn't prepared.

"This is harder than I thought it would be," says Anderson, as the first half ends and he begins to look for other Mount Hebron players.

During the second half of the meet, the teams split into groups. Each team gets five questions and 15 minutes to calculate the answers. The teams can divide the questions among group members.

But before that, the groups huddle and attempt to devise a strategy. Like Wu, who is trying to make a comeback.

"I'm not giving up," he says.

Coaches and supporters pass out cookies and cartons of milk. It's half-time, and the players need recharging.

"These kids are extremely bright, but they go bananas when they see these cookies," says Howard's coach, Mary Massaquoi. "And did you hear that cheering when they hear the right answers? You would think you were at a football game or a baseball game."

Team play

The second half goes by faster than the first, with frantic scribbling and frenzied whispering.

Second half. Question 1: A worm at the bottom wanted to climb to the top of a well 60 feet deep. The worm climbed for 12 hours, at the rate of 1 foot per hour. Then it rested for 12 hours, when it slid down the well at the rate of one half-foot per hour. How many hours did it take the worm to reach the top?

When time is up, the question reader calls out the correct answers to the five questions.

The winners and losers can immediately be spotted. Some team members share high-fives. Others hang their heads, grab their equipment and walk toward the buses.

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