I remember when I abandoned math. I was in front of the black board, my back to the twenty-eight fourth graders behind me. Miss Kuntz had given me a problem to complete and as my struggle to find the right answer became more and more obvious to my classmates the whispering from the two boys behind me grew more intense.
“She can’t do it.”
“She’ll never get it right.”
Distracted by their snide giggling I turned around and hissed,
But it was too late. My concentration was broken. I held the chalk between my fingers with so much force my fingers began to cramp. Finally, knowing I’d never have the answer and a breath away from a full blown panic attack, I mumbled to Miss Kunz “I can’t do it” then walked away from the board, sat down and hid my tears.
At least that’s how I remember it happening.
From that moment I was certain – numbers and math, adding and subtracting and everything else that went along with it – I was no good at and never would be.
In a few years time I would be in high school on a college prep trajectory. I was expected to take algebra, geometry and trigonometry. And I did. But I remember nothing of those classes except how they filled me with dread. Anxiety. Loathing.
Finally, about two months into my junior year, when it became clear that trigonometry was edging me ever closer to a minor nervous breakdown, I was pulled from Mr. Loy’s class and placed in consumer math. Math for dummies. So I was right all along.
No matter. Who needs to know all that stuff anyway?
It took a few decades of life experience for me to realize the truth but as it turns out – I need to know all that stuff.
I take no pride in the fact that I managed to earn a college degree without a single math class. My trick? Earth science. I took so many classes in geometry, biology and meteorology I had enough credits to qualify for a minor.
And yet, until a month ago I had no idea how to convert decimals to fractions or fractions to decimals (to be honest it still takes a bit of thinking for me to figure it out). I can manage adding and subtracting, division and multiplication – as long as no one is waiting for the answer.
I lost the confidence I had in my ability to “do numbers” back in fourth grade, back in Miss Kuntz’s class. And I gave up trying to find it.
I told myself mathematics would never be easy for a girl like me. I was too “right brain” (a theory in neuroscience that recently has been put in doubt); I loved art and history and writing – what did any of that have to do with angles and tangents?
I’m going to find out.
I could have gone with Kahn Academy, the brilliant online series of lectures and lessons. But I like paper. I like black ink and no fancy colors. So I bought a book: Mathematics – A Liberal Arts Approach.
Published in 1964, everything about it – from the type font to the texture of the pages to the cool sheen of the cover and even the scent – it summons a sense of nostalgia that is comforting and not confrontational. Open the first page and this is what you’ll read…
This book is your friend.
A friend takes you by the hand and introduces you to people and things he thinks you will like. A friend tells you about things you ought to know. A friend stays with you when you need help.
Any friendship goes two ways. Give this book your careful attention and you will be well rewarded.
I hope so.