I have a confession: I never really liked math much as a kid. While numbers were nothing more than numerals on a page to me, letters and words always seemed full of personality. "Pomegranate" practically pops off the page like a pom-pom. "Festive" sparkles like the cascading fireworks in the night sky, whereas "subdued" wears a shade of grey far too plain to qualify as fashionable. "Prairie" looks like the landscape of the Midwest, full of slender, tall grasses and the occasional tree.
I still love words, but working as a journalist has taught me that I love wrestling with numbers as well. Want to know how long it took the typical Arlington County commuter to get to work? 26.8 minutes. Curious about how many people of Vietnamese descent lived in Arlington in 1980? 2,027. What percentage of Arlington's public school students qualify to receive free- or reduced-price lunches? 32 percent in 2013. (Thank you, American Community Survey 2007-2011; 1980 U.S. Census; and Arlington Public Schools for the data.)
What makes figures like these so compelling? To me, it's because these numbers point to the stories and the people behind them. Statistics--well, most of them, anyway--don't come out of nowhere. They reflect the decisions, public and private, that have resulted in a particular number.
That 26.8-minute commute? It's longer than the U.S. average (25.4 minutes), but it's still one of the shortest in the congested D.C. area, where nearly 2 percent of commuters are "mega-commuters," traveling 50 or more miles and 90 minutes or more each way. Arlington residents do pay for the privilege of convenient commuting to the District and Dulles Corridor; housing prices are high and continue to climb.
Why the focus on Vietnamese-Americans in Arlington in 1980? Well, before Clarendon became a hotspot for young hipsters in search of trendy cocktails, the neighborhood served as the center of the local Vietnamese community. At the retailers and restaurants of "Little Saigon," recent immigrants could find someone who spoke their language, carried the items they wanted as they rebuilt their lives in America, and knew how to make a proper bowl of pho.
Lastly, as affluent as Arlington is, people still struggle. Nearly one-third of Arlington kids come from families with enough financial challenges to make them eligible to eat free or subsdized meals at school. If that sounds higher than you might expect, consider that national numbers are even higher. Nearly half, or 48 percent, of American public school students are poor enough to qualify for the program, according to one report.
I'd love to hear all of their stories, from the cranky commuters to the naturalized citizen who remembers the real Saigon to the student who dreads school vacations because of the gnawing hunger they bring.
Still think numbers are boring? I'll just have to keep working on you--and my stories.