Math Do the

The Writing
on the

Wall
by Wendy Lichtman

To the memory of Theresa Podmele, the first woman I knew who had a Ph.D. in mathematics. She taught my high school algebra class with passion and clarity, and nearly fifty years later I still love the subject.

Chapter 1 Patterns 1 Chapter 2 Three Thirds 15 Chapter 3 The Four Fours 28
Chapter 4 Graphs 35

Chapter 5 Formulas 48
Chapter 6 Codes 61

Chapter 7 Collecting Data 69 Chapter 8 Knives and Fires 80 Chapter 9 Absolute Value 93 Chapter 10 Rate of Change 104

Chapter 11 Graphic Stories 113 Chapter 12 The Real Story 127 Chapter 13 Coincidental Systems 135 Chapter 14 No Formulas 150 Chapter 15 Family Patterns 164 Chapter 16 Tessellations 179 Chapter 17 Simplifying Expressions 188
Chapter 18


(Which, in Algebra, Means ―Change‖) 201 Chapter 19 Probability: What Are The Chances? 210 Acknowledgments About the Author Credits Cover Copyright About the Publisher

Chapter 1 Patterns
―T
here was this tagger in Los Angeles,‖ Sammy said, ―who wrote coded messages about who was going to get murdered next. He knew that only one person in the city could figure out what he wrote, and that person did figure it out, but not until about six people were already dead.‖ Sammy turned away from the graffiti wall to face Miranda and me. ―From then on,‖ she said, ―the murders stopped.‖ Even though Sammy does know a million facts, she’s so dramatic that it’s always hard to know if what
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she’s telling you is accurate or a major exaggeration. ―That’s creepy,‖ Miranda said. We only had about five minutes before school started, and I wasn’t really all that interested in checking out the graffiti Sammy was so excited about. But when she said, ―What I’m thinking is that this could be a warning, too, and that the person who wrote it knew Tess would understand it,‖ I looked at the numbers that were painted on the back wall of the church near our school. There were about twenty bright green fours in the bottom corner, styled in a way that made it look like art—all different sizes and shapes—but still fours. They formed a messy circle, so I had to tilt my head from side to side to figure it out. ―Do you understand it?‖ Miranda asked as she handed me her denim jacket and took my white sweatshirt. Miranda used to be smaller than Sammy and me, but ever since we got to eighth grade she’s the tallest one—she’s about two inches taller than me now, and I’m about two inches taller than Sammy. It doesn’t
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really matter, though—we still always share our clothes. ―I think it’s the Four Fours problem,‖ I said, slipping on Miranda’s jacket. ―It’s one of Ms. Saltzman’s favorite things—she gives us these for warm-up at math team practice. You’re supposed to be able to make nearly any number by using exactly four fours,‖ I explained. ―Like this one‖—I pointed to 4x4- _ ―would be the number fifteen.‖ ―Clever,‖ Miranda said. ―I knew you’d know,‖ Sammy said. ―What I’m thinking is that maybe this is like that guy in LA, and someone is telling you the next thing that Richard’s going to do to you.‖ ―Oh, come on,‖ I said, picking my backpack up from the ground and tossing it over one shoulder. ―Richard probably doesn’t even know the next thing he’s going to do to me.‖ Sammy shrugged. ―I’m not saying for sure; I’m just saying maybe.‖ ―Stop scaring her,‖ Miranda said as the three of us headed toward school.
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–44 —

I had known that Richard would do something to get back at me for turning him in, but I thought it would be something big—maybe something so awful that I’d want to transfer out of Westlake. Instead, though, he was making me suffer by doing a lot of little mean things in the three weeks since we got back to school from winter break. In a way, I thought as I opened my locker and saw the folded piece of paper that had been slipped through the slats on the locker door, that can be worse because then you’re always waiting for the next bad thing to happen. Also, you have to spend your time wondering if he’ll ever be finished. I unfolded the note about five times before I got to the words that said, ―Watch out, snitch.‖ Miranda was standing next to me, and even though I was trying not to be scared, I could tell that she was—or maybe she just looked that way because she wasn’t used to wearing glasses. She had gotten a pair over the break, and after reading the note she looked at me over the top of her glasses, not through the
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