Turtles, Hares, and Hot Rods

A cartoon of a turtle nervously trying to figure out a simple arithmetic problem at the school chalkboard

“Alright class, we’re going to play Turtle, Hare, and Hot Rod!”

Oh God, no.

There were few games I feared more than “Turtle, Hare, and Hot Rod” in elementary school. It was a game occasionally played in our math class where groups of three students would go up to the board and have to solve an arithmetic problem as quick as they could in front of the whole class. The winner would crowned “Hot Rod”, second place “Hare”, and finally the humiliating “Turtle” to the loser. I was usually the Turtle.

It was a source of embarrassment and frustration losing so frequently in front of my peers in that game. Sure other classmates lost as well in other matches but the fairly wide margin between the runner up and myself was unique and only added insult to injury. I’d often be the final one left trying desperately to solve the problem with every pair of eyes in the class pointed directly at me, waiting. If the panic that came from trying to solve a math problem quickly wasn’t enough for me to short circuit, the rolling snowball of stage fright nerves did. This wasn’t just for the game either, I’d lag a few problems behind my classmates in times table tests as well, often hitting the timer before I could finish.

Only in retrospect did it become apparent what the source of the separation was; my peers were reciting answers based on rote memorization in the games and tests while I found myself computing them in my head nearly every time. Even for the ones I was fairly sure I knew the answer to I found myself impulsing falling into a computation anyway. It was as if I had to prove to myself that the result in my memory was actually valid, otherwise it was no good. Why I found it so much more reassuring to think this way I can’t be certain, but I would guess it was due to some deep seeded distrust of pure, rote memory — even if it was my own. Only when I could prove the result to myself would I feel satisfied enough in it to write the answer down.

As time slipped by towards middle school, however, I found that math curiously became not just more enjoyable but also easier. There were fewer math games and the test questions transitioned from assessing our memory recollection speed to quizzing our ability to work out more involved problems. The questions evolved from a rapid-fire stream of problems like “How fast can you remember the answer to 8*7?” into relatively time consuming, process based questions like “Calculate 7x + 5 = 104/4”.

In situations like this we couldn’t memorize the result beforehand and didn’t have to memorize any theorems, all we had to do was compute. I was so used to computing manually at that point it was almost second nature to chug away at these problems like I had always done, just with the simple extra step of writing down my work as I went along for grading. This gradually evolved over time from raw computing to complex problem solving, all the while my previous handicap acting as a comforting (though minor) advantage.

Many years later as high school neared its conclusion my father suggested a discipline I hadn’t even considered up to that point, programming. That timely suggestion and my love for our family’s old iMac both guided me to eventually choose it as my study of choice and I flew to the east coast to pursue Software Engineering at Drexel University. It was when my college career began and exposed me to core computer science concepts for the first time that it clicked; I could finally leverage the skills I had been honing out of necessity for nearly my whole life not just to get by but as my secret weapon to advance in the profession. Algorithms and programming techniques often seemed oddly familiar and relatable to me in a way that wasn’t to the third of the software engineering class that dropped out. This old Turtle had finally found a home.

So to the new generation of Turtles frustrated at themselves for not being as fast as their grade school peers at times tables and math games, don’t worry about it for another moment. Your particular skill set is not a curse but a blessing; thanks to programming there’s a perfect outlet for you to explore where we Turtles can excel. With programming, our steady and methodical nature pays off in droves. With programming, we can finally be Hot Rods.