Where have all the maths-question Susans gone?

Every test question used to feature a 'Susan' – but now they rarely do. Stephen Petty is left desperately seeking Susan
13th December 2020, 12:00pm
Stephen Petty


Where have all the maths-question Susans gone?

Where Have All The 'susans' From Maths & Science Questions Disappeared To, Asks Stephen Petty

This challenging little primary school question is currently doing the rounds on social media: "Jane has 12 crayons and Kim has 7 crayons. How many more crayons does Susan have than Kim?" 

In the space provided for the answer, one child has naturally written: "Who is Susan?" 

"Who is Susan?" is indeed a good question - and where on earth has she gone? 

I was quite surprised even to see her name mentioned at all in such a question, though perhaps it's fitting that she only appears in ghost form. "Susan" has otherwise entirely vanished from all questions, from primary school textbooks to A-level physics exams. 

Maths and science: The leading role played by Susan

Those of a certain age will confirm that Susan used to be a regular in such questions. Her role went way beyond mere crayon distribution. She used to be the leading figure in countless other maths questions, featuring apples, balls, slices of cake, sweets and the like. 

She didn't just turn up repeatedly in maths tasks. She could crop up anywhere. In German lessons, I remember having to use a map to direct Susan back to the local bahnhof, after she had got lost on some imaginary German exchange. Not sure the railway station was the best place for her to head, but that was Susan for you.

She was big in science, too. She would be the typical subject of a graph recording her pulse rate before and after exercise. At other times, she would be creating kinetic energy on her bicycle or walking on a carpet in her socks and becoming negatively charged. Oh yes, it all used to happen to Susan. 

Though, to be honest, I have always sensed that Susan was a bit of a cold fish. Whenever other children appeared with her in the preamble to the question, she always seemed more egocentric and grasping than the others around her. 

When it came to sharing out those crayons, cakes, apples and so on, it always seemed to be Susan who sought to have more than the others. Poor little Jane and Kim had to make do with whatever was left.

So maybe Jane and Kim finally lost it with their insensitive, selfish peer - pelted her with those apples, pushed her pulse rate too high, electrocuted her with a carpet or something. Perhaps that's why she vanished - and why Jane and Kim are now lying low, too.

Where has Susan gone?

The more likely reason, of course, for the decline of Susan in tests and textbook questions is because there are virtually no children of that name left in school. We have more than 2,000 pupils at ours and not one of them is called Susan, or even Sue. I cannot remember the last time I ever taught one

It's been a terrible decline for Susans. When I was at primary school, the place seemed to be almost overflowing with them. My first ever girlfriend (at the age of 8) was, unsurprisingly, called Susan. As were the third and fourth. 

We know what happened to the real-life Susans, at least as far as school is concerned. They are now experienced heads of year, heads of subject, fine teachers or TAs, some of them may be on the senior leadership team

As with the rest of us, they are all currently masked up and wiping down desks for about the 300th time this term, wondering if the holiday will ever come

The real Susans are usually just as delightful and lovely as the next colleague, almost entirely different from the "Susans" we used to read about in questions. Though - owing to, er, past "misunderstandings" with colleagues - some of them do now carry their own set of crayons around.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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