A recent post by Kevin Kim, who styles himself “The Big Hominid” at his Web-Log, told the tale of a Burger King cashier who was only marginally capable of doing simple math. Alas, not a rare thing these days.
Kevin’s story reminded me of my own First Encounter with innumeracy, an encounter that took place in coastal Georgia close to half a century ago.
It was springtime, and we were on our way to South Florida to visit with the maternal grandparents – an annual pilgrimage that we were now doing by car rather than by airplane. Back then, of course, interstate highways were thin on the ground; this made the journey lengthier but far more colorful, since you would have to drive through a myriad of minuscule burgs in the boondocks.
One of the wider spots in the road was the small city of Brunswick, Georgia, lying roughly midway between Savannah and Jacksonville. We would cruise through there on U.S. Highway 17, swinging past the nascent resorts of St. Simons and Jekyll Islands… but on this particular trip, the Old Man must have been feeling a bit sharp-set, and so we stopped to grab a bite of lunch at one of the local drive-in restaurants.
Drive-in, I say, not drive-through… for back then, you did not pull up to the window at, say, a McDonald’s, and get a burger handed to you in a paper sack. No: You pulled into a parking place, and a waitress on roller skates would zoom up, take your order, and within minutes deliver it unto you, placing it on a tray that she would hang from your window.
Following established protocol, we pulled into our space and a young lady skated up and took our order. Shortly afterward, she brought out our meals. That’s when she started having problems.
This was the early 1960s, you see, when there was no such thing as an electronic cash register or a computer that would automatically add up your check. Waitstaff in those days would write down your order, add up the various prices, calculate the tax (in those rare places that actually charged a sales tax), and would present you with the total. You, in turn, would check the waiter’s arithmetic, for, like as not, an error or two could easily creep into that total.
Here, though, the poor girl was flummoxed… for though she had written the numbers down right and proper, she had absolutely no clue as to how to add them up.
My father, gentleman that he was, did the job for her. Then he paid the check… and then we drove away, completely dumbfounded. Not so much that there were actual adult people who couldn’t add a column of numbers — after all, this was the South! — but that such people could get a job whilst lacking such a basic part of the required skill set.
Now, almost fifty years later, nothing surprises me. The younger generation’s reliance on electronic devices is now so total that without their calculators and computers, not a man-jack among ’em would not find himself reduced to the helpless state of that poor, innumerate carhop in Brunswick, Georgia. Kevin’s story is evidence… and I weep to know it.