Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Math Trauma: This post is shockingly void of hyperbole but you'd never believe it


To say that I am bad at math is one of the most severe understatements of modern times. The statement, "Libby is bad at math" is less true than if one were to say, "Biff is indifferent towards manure."

Are you following me? I'm not good at it and I don't like that. Even on my very best days I am hypersensitive to the failure. My brains completely reject any math that is more complicated than what it takes to keep a running tally of the price of things in my grocery cart (and even though I'm rounding up to the nearest dollar, I'm still a little surprised every time I hear my total so obvi I'm no genius even in that department). For some perspective aside from my own opinion, I will tell you that I took Algebra I three times in my college career. I failed it twice (the second and third times, I had a tutor) and the third time, my professor passed me (just barely) because he could see how hard I was trying and he knew that I needed to graduate and couldn't really afford to take this class another time. I did all of my homework. I participated in class as much as humanly possible and I bombed every friggin exam without fail. Well, that's not entirely true. Once I got a C on a test and I had a celebratory cinnamon ice cream waffle at lunch time. Brandon, my tutor/ friend, was clearly not terribly impressed but he also knew how hard I had to work for that grade so while it was probably sort of a personal fail for him, he hugged me and said "that is so great!"
Side note about people who are really good at math: People who are good at math have a pretty bearable tolerance for other people who are okay or alright at math. But, then, when it comes time for a mathy person to talk to me about this subject, I do a lot of blank staring because my brain is entering into a land littered with years of shame and embarrassment while everyone else seems to navigate freely as if on a unicycle through fields of poppies and rainbows. Math Friendly person gets really frustrated really quickly. They feel like they're feeding me super obvious answers but I'm still staring blankly trying to figure out the question--I haven't even moved on to the answer, yet. I can cry much too easily when I'm in the thick of a problem. It's uncontrollable and it's incredibly childish. This does not help the shame and embarrassment. This is why Brandon was a good tutor--his patience was infinite and his hair was curly and he was my friend. Brandon is not reading this--but if he happened to, I'd like to say thanks for not shaming me further. A rose among thorns, sir, a rose among thorns.
Sometimes at my job I have to do math. It's not terribly complex math but for a girl like me--it is a sort of kryptonite. Just knowing that I have to do it gets my mind all frustrated and panicky (you'll be happy to know that according to auto-spell check, "panicky" is totally a word) and I have to actively push it aside to make room to actually do what I need to do. It's a constant struggle. There are so many things to remember and other things to take into consideration and don't forget about the extra stuff and if you don't subtract the whatsit then it will all be ruined and you'll be fired. No pressure! (Okay, I won't be fired--probably--but there could potentially be repercussions that make everyone's life seriously inconvenient and I don't want to be the cause of that for anyone.)

After a particularly frustrating time at work, sincerely pouring myself into figuring out a problem (after all this is my job, it's not some prerequisite for graduation), I was on the brink of tears and I had to take a break. I needed to get out of there. It should be noted that the frustration lasted the duration of my shift and I did unexpectedly break into tears more than a few times. I went to the break room and I had a cup of coffee and peeled more oranges than I had intended to eat and I was thinking about the fourth grade.

In the fourth grade I had a sweet teacher. She was the kind of person that was so happy that it made you nervous. You know exactly what I'm talking about. One day, she didn't speak a word to us and we weren't allowed to speak to one another, either... (you have no idea where I'm going with this) singing was the only form of communication that was allowed for an entire day. Even as a child, I knew that her heavy make up and ultra cheery voice masked something sinister.

Math was her most favorite subject. English was fine. History was okay. But math was her forte and she let everyone know it. She wrote songs and raps (90's kid) to help us remember our times tables. I worked so hard, even at home. I would quiz myself with flashcards all night long. Ones were easy, 2's were pud, 3's were a little more difficult but not impossible, fours weren't that difficult but I used my fingers a lot, anyone's puppy can count by 5's. And then there were the dreaded 6's. (Honestly, as an adult, do you know anyone who can instinctively count by sixes?) By this point I had already been moved into the section of the class with the other kids who were not terribly bright in this department. Many of those children were oral retentive. But, regardless, we all had to learn it. Our teacher was going around the room and we were counting by 6's. The first kid said "6", the next kid said "12", the next kid said "18". It all went in a lovely rhythm. I threw off that rhythm. When it came to me, I just stared. I didn't know. I couldn't count by 6's and I couldn't add it in my head fast enough to keep up. I'm going to borrow a drawing from Allie Brosh's Drunk Post back in October to give you a visual that closely resembles what I probably looked like. It was like this:
My teacher was fine. She knows we all struggle. But she was a little bit irked that the groove had been interrupted. So they went around the room again and other kids had some troubles. Sixes are hard. My turn was coming up, the kid in front of me didn't know the answer right away and neither did the girl that came before him. Then it was my turn again and the anxiety was in full force (I've told you, before, about what a delicate child I was, right?). I didn't know. I was confused. There was too much pressure for me to think clearly. I said, "...I don't know." And my sweet, darling teacher lost her mind. Quite. Literally. Her hands were resting on an empty desk which she grasped tightly and swung against the cinderblock wall. I distinctly remember her yelling, "You guys should know this by now!!"

I don't have any idea what my face might have done at that point but I do remember that my teacher smoothed her denim skirt, delegated that Nicholas King was going to be in charge for a little bit, and excused herself. The principle took over for the rest of the day, I was excused to the library to sit in the beanbag chairs and read picture books and our teacher didn't come back for at least three weeks.

So... I wonder where all that math anxiety stems from?

Love, Libby

Mildly Unrelated Post Script, the following is a text conversation between my friend Katie and myself:
Libby: I cried pretty much all day. ABOUT MATH. If you think that wasn't PMS induced, you're delusional. Now I'm blogging about it. ... That crap. It's so sneaky. It slithers in under the cover of legitimate stress and then KABLOWIE!! Unreasonable shrapnel everywhere. Few survivors.
Katie: It's a war zone. In my pants.
Libby: I'm going to post that on the internet.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh Libby, how I miss your stories everyday. :)
~Mindy

Katie Hurl said...

Just here for the period conversation.

J/k.

I wanted to hear a story about MATH!!! (Don't worry. I failed Algebra 1 three times, too...and my Dad has his Batchellors degree in mathematics. Talk about feeling like a giant fail...)

Curly-T said...

She seriously threw a desk against the wall?

And interestingly enough - I had stomach ulcers in the fourth grade due to teacher anxiety. Fourth grade - who knew it would affect so many people?

Lucy said...

I think you just discussed the plight of English majors everywhere.

Nickie said...

WE ARE THE SAME in so many ways... my dreaded math year was 3rd grade though. stupid math. i think working at the deli has helped me with math a teeny tiny bit... and with kiddos at school... i feel like i am learning right along with them... so that's cool.

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