Brooke Johnson was adding and subtracting monomials and polynomials on the white board, trying her best to convey the beauty of math to art students who looked on in puzzled dismay.

Johnson, of course, is a left-brain person in a right-brain world. Her job is teaching algebra at the Art Institute of Charleston, where one student is wearing a green cape and oversized pink glasses and another has his hat on sideways and carries his books in an army rucksack.

At the 3-year-old art school on North Market Street are 700 students whose goals are to become chefs, artists, fashion designers, film makers and the like. Few are intimately interested in numeric coefficients.

"I understand they're artists and they struggle with it," Johnson said. "But they're here to get a complete education."

Pink glasses

Mallory Smith from Summerville hopes to be a fashion coordinator and just wants to get through her math requirements. "I've been running from these math courses for a while," she said. "Maybe I'll understand it later."

Bob Mule is the guy in the green cape and pink glasses. He's studying photography and doesn't think math is his forte. "The math is kind of discouraging and difficult because my head works the other way."

Christopher Semonis is a military brat who lived in Alaska and is studying culinary management. "I like numbers, like in accounting, but not so much in algebra. I like percentages, but this stuff is not as applicable for me."

Ace Blankenship, from Lancaster, served in the 82nd Airborne and wants to be a film director. "Math is pretty straightforward," he said. "All the students here seem to hate it, but it's required."

Art in algebra

That's the challenge for Johnson as she passed out quizzes from a previous class, which she graded on a curve.

"I can tell you had an idea of what you're doing," she told the students, "But you got some of the answers wrong. So let's take another look at these problems."

Thus they begin the eternal quest of finding the value of X and trying to figure out if two planes are 2,740 miles apart, flying toward each other, their speeds differ by 35 miles per hour and they pass in four hours, what is the speed of the slower plane?

That makes many eyes glass over, but Johnson works hard to get the algebraic light bulbs in their artistic heads to click on.

So, is there a possibility these students will suddenly come to see art in algebra?

"Well," Johnson said with a smile and a sigh, "I wouldn't go quite that far."

Reach Ken Burger at or 937-5598. To read previous columns, go to