Problems With Word Problems

What’s this about, here?–Sarah

Episod 8, “Lessons,” is one of The Wire’s most conceptually-focused episodes. As its title suggests, it’s all about learning. This makes it a sort of early blueprint for the school-centered Season Four. And while this episode does a lot to advance the plot as Season 1 builds to the dramatic, catastrophic events of its final few episodes, there is always half an eye on the title of the episode. It is the concept album of The Wire, where nearly every scene features people learning or refusing to learn some lesson or another.

Many of my pieces on this episode will deal with the various ways that characters learn, but for the post that deals directly with the title, I chose the one scene that goes right to the heart of learning by examining both the things that make us learn and the impediments to learning. I am talking about the scene where Wallace gives one of his young charges a lesson in mathematics.

The scene begins with Wallace waking up. It is the same bed and the same vacant house as the opening to “The Wire,” but it is later in the day than it was on that terrible day, when he awoke to see Brandon’s body. Now, Wallace is sleeping in. The reason for this was made clear in the previous episode, when we saw him falling onto his bed in a heroin-induced nod. He is out cold, deeply asleep even though the opening shot shows the bright sun pouring through the window and onto his face.

Clearly, Wallace is trying to withdraw from life. He wants to hide from his job, his friends, any part of his reality that will remind him of the increasingly-burdensome guilt. But his paternal responsibilities still seek him out. Willingly or not, he has adopted a group of young waifs, and they need his help. A young, androgynous girl named Sarah needs help with a math problem. Heroin or not, the kids still see Wallace as the font of knowledge, the one who can solve their problems and tell them figure out “what’s this about here?”

As Wallace sits up, we get a look at a physical symptom of the psychological state he is currently in as he tries to find a way to see meaning in a world that contains such horrors as Brandon’s murder (not to mention his role in that murder). His hair is starting to come undone, with the cornrows on the left half of his head starting to loosen and fray into a wild afro. The other half is fine, showing that he has spent the past few days sleeping on his left side, curled in the fetal position and hoping to be delivered into some better world.

In a way, he looks like Dr. Strangelove, the mad Nazi scientist turned American nuclear arms expert, whose head stands in as a visual representation of the war and peace that we all carry within us (or, as another Kubrick hero would say, “The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.”). The left half is a wild mushroom cloud while the right half is neatly-combed. Strangelove is the schizophrenic oracle that the political and military high command consult with when faced with the unimaginable possibility of a nuclear apocalypse. Wallace’s roll may be significantly less dramatic, but his hair illustrates the challenges faced by all of those who try to comprehend the possibility of an existence outside of the one they have always known.

For young Sarah, that world is so small that even the mechanical existence of a bus driver is hard to comprehend. She comes to Wallace for help with a math problem. More specifically, she is stumped by a word problem, a simple combination of addition and subtraction procedures made incomprehensible by their translation into the language of a concrete situation. Wallace reads the problem:

“A bus traveling on Central Avenue begins its route by picking up eight passengers. At the next stop it picks up four more and an additional two at the third stop while discharging one. At the next to last stop, three passengers get off the bus and another two get on. How many passengers are still on the bus when the last stop is reached?”

The procedure required by the problem is so easy for Wallace that he can’t give any advice beyond “just do it in your head.” That is easy for Wallace to say. He is older than Sarah, and more importantly, he is intelligent. This was made clear from the first episode, when he was the only one in the Pit who knew that Alexander Hamilton wasn’t a president. The challenge for Wallace, and any teacher, is to make his own knowledge accessible to his student without simply giving her the answer.

Sarah continues to puzzle through the problem as Wallace gets into a more adult conversation with Poot, who arrives to inform Wallace that testers are going out. What Poot really wants to do is bring Wallace out of his stupor and get him back to work. He wants things to go back to normal, but Wallace wants nothing to do with him or the testers (except for the $10 he begs off of Poot). “Fuck the testers, fuck Dee, fuck all that shit.” Wallace is fed up, and he wants to eradicate the drug game from his life.

The problem is that he has no more of an idea how to build a life outside of the Pit than Sarah knows how to do the word problem. She takes a couple of incorrect guesses (7, 8) and finally, Wallace, $10 richer, tries to put arithmetic in terms she can understand. He creates a word problem of his own, ordering her to open her eyes as he narrates:

“You working a ground stash. 20 tall pinks. Two fiends come up to you and ask for two each. Another one cops three. Then bodie hands you off 10 more, but some white guy rolls up in a car, waves you down and pays for eight. How many vials you got left?”

Without missing a beat, Sarah answers correctly: 15. Wallace asks the obvious question: “How the fuck you able to keep the count right, you not able to do the book problem then?” The answer is simple. “Count be wrong, they’ll fuck you up.”

The lesson is clear: we learn from necessity. Sarah sees a physical imperative to get the count right, so she can keep track of the endlessly coming and going “tall pinks.” It helps that she is able to visualize the transactions, closing her eyes and imagining a busy shift in the pit, using specific details like the race of the fiend in the car. But she can also visualize this because it is part of her reality, something she participates in daily. It is nothing exotic like, say, a bus driver’s route.

There is another lesson here, and it gets to the very heart of knowledge. Math is a tricky subject, and some people have a difficult time grasping the complex operations that can be done with numbers. One such person was Carl Jung, the otherwise-brilliant inspiration behind Private Joker’s paradox of duality. In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, Jung describes the difficulty he had learning algebra in school. “The teacher pretended that algebra was a perfectly natural affair, to be taken for granted, whereas I didn’t even know what numbers really were. They were not flowers, not animals, not fossils; they were nothing that could be imagined, mere quantities that resulted from counting.”

Jung’s difficulty with math stemmed from his inability to transfer the concrete world surrounding him into the abstract world of x and y. He could understand flowers, animals, and fossils (not to mention the deepest realms of the human psyche) because they were tangible. They were things. But a number is just an idea. When a person says “15” they are not talking about 15 of anything in particular. When the topic turns to 15 gelcaps, though, it becomes a different story entirely. A person’s very life might hinge on that distinction.

Sarah’s real problem is that, while she could do the math in the concrete world of the drug trade, she couldn’t transfer those skills to the more abstract world outside of the pit. And in a way, this scene is a miniature version of the more existential crisis that threatens to drown Wallace. He knows that the world of the Pit is not for him, but he can’t see a reality outside of it either.

Poot recognizes as much when he later tells D’Angelo “yeah, but he ain’t about nothing else.” This is not an insult; it is a statement of simple fact. Until Wallace can find a way to transfer his own skills and knowledge into something outside of the drug game, there will only be one more place for him to go–the bottom of yet another “tall pink.”

2 thoughts on “Problems With Word Problems

  1. Pingback: The Wire, "Lessons," Street Smarts, Book Smarts | The Wire Blog

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