###### Submitted by Aaron Arkin.

Ever since I can remember I’ve had difficulty with math. Well, almost forever. When I was ten I scored high in a city-wide aptitude test (which I assume had at least some math questions). And I should acknowledge here that I was able to memorize my times tables. So for a time I thought I was doing OK. But the 8th grade changed everything and after that it was all downhill. The pivotal event I remember most vividly went something like this (performed in front of a chalkboard):

Alright class, today I’m going to introduce you to a new kind of math. It’s called . . . algebra! Now I know you’re familiar with addition/subtraction/multiplication and division. And we’ve studied decimals and fractions. But algebra is different: you can use it to solve mathematical problems when there is an unknown. For example, if I say two times something (an unknown) equals four, you would say that the something, the unknown, is two based on what you know about multiplication from your times tables. Well here is the fun part: instead of saying two times something equals four, we replace the something with an x. So if 2 times x=4 (2x=4), then x=2. See, we’re already doing algebra!

Fair enough. So far so good. Then we went on to the next example: if 2+x=16, then x=14. Hey, this is great, I’m getting it. Then . . . the third example:

What just happened? I looked around the classroom. Was I the only one confused? Everyone was dutifully writing in their notebooks: nobody looked upset. Had I blacked-out or been in a fugue state only to wake up after several weeks or months of algebraic lessons? Was it more sinister: had I been kidnapped and taken to another planet? (OK, kids aren’t particularly bound by reality when trying to come to terms with scary situations.)

Somehow I got through (or was passed through) elementary school algebra. In high school I avoided intermediate algebra and thought I had escaped for good only to be advised in college that in order to graduate I had to make it up (the course, that is).

I took the dreaded course in summer school and the experience was a revelation. The instructor was a humorless but focused Eastern European with an ability to clearly and concisely present the material. His logic was laser-like when it came to explaining the reason why something did or did not make mathematical sense. And I actually understood everything he was teaching! Because if you didn’t understand something, he went back and explained it another way until you did. I got an A: an A!

Heartened by this experience and wanting to broaden my education, I decided to challenge myself and take an elective math course for non-math majors. I settled on: Introduction to Mathematical Thinking (analysis, on an elementary level, of the nature of mathematical reasoning; elements of set theory; some simple postulational systems). What could go wrong?

Our Professor was in love with mathematics. Enthusiastically, he flitted in front of the room chalk in hand dropping equations like a crop-duster spreading pesticide. I remember one episode in particular when as he was racing in front of the equation-saturated chalkboard, he suddenly stopped, turned, faced us, pointed his finger at a set of equations (I think it included a square root sign) and exclaimed: “So, the only possible answer is this!”

I remember looking at the chalkboard and thinking, why this? Why not some other candidate: like the algebraic equations in the upper left-hand corner? They looked like an upstanding set of numbers, symbols and letters: probably came from a good family. I should stand up and challenge this. But when I looked around and saw the other students dutifully writing in their notebooks (why does this still happen?), I kept still.

I sweated the final: can still feel my anxiety the day of the examination. I studied hard and even enlisted my more mathematically-inclined friends to help me prepare but I flubbed the exam and received a D. To this day the only things I remember about the course (outside of the peripatetic professor) are the 3 circles in Set Theory with their common overlapping area (I think it was green).

As an adult I have read many books designed to explain mathematics: mathematics in physics, fractiles, numeric properties, mathematical modeling, etc. They all promise a view into the wonders, elegance and utility of the discipline. Sadly, I glimpse only slightly the delights and insights that mathematicians seem to enjoy. But then I think, doesn’t written language also have rules that are complex and demand precision and rigorous application? Good writing has elegance and subtleties and requires practice and extensive knowledge in order to make meaningful use of it: to use language to good effect, to show things in a new light, even as a way to model the world in new and imaginative ways. How is that not unlike the discipline of mathematics?

My regret in all of this is that (1) unfortunately, language skills don’t automatically translate into mathematical skills, and (2) frequently mathematics is taught poorly: an observation often made by others.

Had I to do it all over again, I would glom onto my intermediate algebra instructor at all my mathematical experiences; then too, I might be transported into that special world he so much appreciated.

Print This Post
Carol says

Leaving math aside (which I also did in much the same way) you should take heart that you definitely excel as a writer. Keep writing, because that is where your talent lies! Thanks for a very entertaining read.

Susanne Bacon says

Ah, math! Indeed I struggled from grade six. With degrading eye-sight and childish vanity to not wear glasses, I fell behind. Under a most cynical math teacher in grade 11(we had long since started analysis, and no way to dodge any math class through graduation!), who subdued strugglers with added sarcasm in front of class, I almost failed. But then the change: In grade 12 and 13 I got the kindest, most patient math teacher, and for his efforts’ sake I actually sat down in the Christmas vacations before the final written exams to study math real hard and prove everybody wrong. I knew I could, I had to do this. I did! I came out with a B in my most feared subject.

The lesson I learned from this has carried me through every challenge ever since: Even if it’s not your favorite topic, even if you think it’s not your forte – with your mind set to it, you can conquer any challenge. Never give up! You got this! I’m ever grateful to the math teacher who made me see the light.

Mike Brandstetter says

Math in striction fills a societal need. Employing all those mathematicians as teachers is much less expensive than institutionizing them.

Pat Wood says

Tooo true!

Ruby Natty says

Unlike you, I loved math, at least in the basic courses. But I also excelled in English. You wrote a wonderful article and helped me understand how some students struggle with the concepts Of math. I believe you are right on – many times it is poor teaching that holds a student back.

Joan Campion says

It’s somewhat comforting of know that I wasn’t the only one suffering that experience in high school. I even had to take an arithmetic fundamentals course course after repeated Ds in classes. I barely made it through to graduate. the only way I achieved an associates degree by then in my 40s was by taking non math related science classes which I did enjoy and do will in even with an A in Oceanography.

One of my sons is a whiz at math and he has tried helping me understand numbers beyond the basics with the preliminary equations you started with and that’s as far as I can go.

Any problem requiring spatial skills eludes me to this day with intake and outtake and a big fizzle in the middle.

Thank you for sharing that episode in your life.

Eric Chandler says

Fourth grade….for some reason I had great difficulty understanding division. My teacher kept me after school trying to get me to understand, but….I just could not get IT! Finally, exasperated with me she blurted out, “You are just STUPID and LAZY !!” and sent me home.

20 years later I am a US Army Computer Programmer and Systems Analyst working in support of Operational Research projects for the US Army Armor & Engineer board. We had to create programs that included many complex statistical models and convert 20′ x 20′ cloth target panels into a printable form consisting of paper that measured 50 lines x 132 characters/line, and then print an asterisk where a tank round went thru the cloth target…oh yeah, the hole positions were measured in x,y metric coordinates.

So…how did I handle that? One of my civilian compatriots held a PhD in Mathematics and he could see I was struggling with all of these complexities. He suggested I take some Math courses he was teaching at Ft Knox for the U of Kentucky. He said….start out with the “bonehead Algebra” to get yourself a fresh start (he knew about my 4th Grade experience). Got an A+ out of that one and then took Calculus from him…another A+, and I was on a roll.

For the rest of my career as an IT person I handled some of the most-complex problems you could ever imagine and frequently came up with unique solutions, some of which were adopted by the military and used as standard practices.

System Requirements Analysis solutions I prepared justified acquisition of high-end, sophisticated computer hardware and operating systems valued in the millions of dollars.

After the military I taught college-level IT courses including Systems Analysis, Design, Development, and Testing. My final job was as an institutional researcher for a college where I constructed surveys and provided statistical analysis of the results, along w/many statistical studies about a variety of topics of interest to the college.

So…why am I writing about me? Well, that teacher “branded” my brain as being “stupid and lazy” and had a negative impact on me for a good part of my life. So this should be a wake-up call to all teachers that are having difficulty with a student. If your “standard” teaching approach isn’t working then put on your big girl/boy pants on and figure out another way. If you can’t find another way, then get someone else to help YOU!

Kid’s lives are too important to throw away just because you are exasperated.

David Anderson says

“Our Professor was in love with mathematics. Enthusiastically, he flitted in front of the room chalk in hand dropping equations like a crop-duster spreading pesticide.”

That’s funny. Even without your wall-to-wall chalk diagram, I could picture your perspiring and peripatetic professor flitting about the room (‘dang it, why is it that only this wall has a chalk board! Think, students, what we could accomplish if all three other walls were likewise covered with chalk boards!’)

I had a similar experience my first time through (yes, I took it twice) Algebra. Frantic, in response to a an algebraic equation concerning the score of a football game, scared spitless, I scribbled my answer.

The teacher, in handing back the sorry excuses that doubled as the exams, said, right out loud, in front of class, ‘We had this one student who in response to the football equation, answered six-and-a-half. Students, if you’re going to guess, put six, or seven, because in football there is no such thing as six-and-a-half!’

Dutifully humiliated (the teacher of course knew, as I knew but no one else knew), I took Algebra over.

And got the football question right.

Hey, thanks for writing Aaron! Fond memories of surviving junior high.

Jaynie Dillon Jones says

Aaron Arkin, when I saw the title of this story I cringed and recoiled. That’s my visceral reaction to anything to do with math. You are a phenomenal storyteller and your story is a veritable parallel to my own nightmare with math. I won’t go into more detail as you have already pretty much written my story. I will add that my daughter Evelyn Prozora was gifted in both math and language. She must have gotten the math gene from her father. She had a voluminous appetite for math and took every AP course that was offered at Lincoln High School before going on to college and her career in the Army as a linguist in Korean and electronic warfare specialist. While still in high school, she told me that my “problem” was that I kept trying to “understand math.” She said that was the wrong approach, “Just memorize it.”