Thursday, January 28, 2021

"You mean I'm NOT terrible at math?": a lesson in contrast

This opinion piece is going to be a radical departure from doodles of Technicolor fanfic characters, so I apologize. But it's something I've had on my mind and just felt like talking about it somewhere, and what better place than my blog?

It's an anecdote from my own life, and a lesson on how perception changes everything. And a lesson on how much influence adults really have over children.


I taught myself how to read early. Suffice to say that I was already reading by kindergarten. In first grade, the teacher would have me read to my classmates if she had to step out of the classroom for something. I breezed through English classes all the way through college and usually got 100% on spelling tests. I consistently scored in the top percentiles in English in standardized testing. When I took the ACT for college, I got a perfect score in the English sections.

I'm not telling you this to brag. I'm telling you this to set you up for how abysmal I was at math.

Up until college, math was the bane of my existence. I hated it. I wanted nothing to do with it. My math homework was always the last homework I touched. If I even touched it. My utter refusal to approach math resulted in rock-bottom math grades and the need for serious teacher-parent intervention just so I wouldn't flunk. I distinctly remember my math homework helper in 9th grade throwing up his hands and walking out of the room in frustration because I just wasn't getting it. My second grade teacher outright accused me of being stupid (her words) because of the awful state of my math skills.

All of it would have been funny if it hadn't been so sad. 

Do you think I enjoyed being bad at math? No. I wished so badly I was good at math. I didn't feel like I was truly "smart" unless I understood math. I wanted so much to be like the kids I saw at school who were math champions and seemed to do it so effortlessly. In junior high I doodled a story concept about a superheroine who was a math genius and used her smarts to save the city. I was definitely projecting onto her who I longed to be.

I even developed a bit of an imposter syndrome about it, where I felt terrified that people perceived me as intelligent because of my language skills, but as soon as they found out how bad I was at math, they would realize how dumb I "really" was. I loved science, technology, and engineering, but felt like I could never "fit in" with the STEM community because I was missing the M part.

Then, in my required college algebra class, that all changed practically overnight.

I walked into class that first day, dreading it but determined to get my degree. I was certain this class would wreck my 4.0 GPA. Unfortunately, it was one of the last things standing between me and that animation production diploma. Thank you, general education curriculum.

Then the teacher arrived. (Yes, I tended to get to classes about ten minutes before the teacher.) 

He looked out at us, and do you know what one of the first things he said to us was? "You probably don't hate math as much as you think you do."

Wait, what?!

This blew. My mind. I might not hate math?! Hating math was a part of my identity! But I wasn't outraged--I was intrigued. Because I had to be honest with myself and admit that this was a part of my identity I wished I could change.

I wish I could quote my professor verbatim, but I did not have the foresight to start recording him on my phone as he delivered this world-changing revelation. But I can tell you that he explained to us that very few children go to kindergarten having already had experiences with math. Even for kids who learn to read early, number theory is just not something they encounter in their everyday lives unless they have mathematician family members. So for most kids, school is their first introduction to math.

And that's what takes all the joy out of it. My professor explained that most elementary school teachers dislike math (because they in turn learned it from elementary school teachers who disliked math), but are required to teach it to their students because elementary schools don't have separate teachers for core subjects. Do you think any kid is going to develop much interest in math by learning it from a teacher who hates it and imbues their lessons with an unconscious sense of resentment, obligation, and "let's just get this over with as soon as possible so we can get to the good stuff"?

No wonder I hadn't latched on to math as I had with so many other subjects I'd read about before kindergarten. My teachers kept making it sound like the most boring thing in the world. They taught it as if it was the most boring thing in the world. And then they hypocritically chastised me for displaying the same distinct lack of interest.

My algebra professor, however, clearly loved math to his core. The way he spoke about it made me think that perhaps there was more to it than repetitive equations and meaningless numbers. He challenged us to forget everything we thought we knew about math (okay, except for our times tables) and approach this class with a fresh start. Pretend we didn't hate math. Leave our emotional math baggage at the door and see how much we might actually like math if we gave it a chance.

Well, if somebody gives me a challenge, I go 110%. I liked the idea of this experiment and I went for it. I cast off all of my bad math memories, and even ignored my fears and preconceived notions of how terrible I must be at math, and just focused on learning and doing the work and seeing what would come of it.

And... a miracle happened. I found I liked math. No--"like" is too weak of a word. I loved math. I enjoyed it with every fiber of my being. Learning new ways to work - nay, play - with numbers invigorated me and thrilled me. Math was a game, a puzzle, a pleasant diversion, a key to the universe. Equations were fascinating ways to put data together. Numbers, while obviously having their applications, were also delightful entities in their own right, like musical notes that could be arranged into infinite symphonies.

Not only that... but I was good at math. I caught on to new concepts quickly. I discovered an intuition for numbers that I never thought I had. I could actually figure some things out before the teacher explained them. It was the sort of educational ease that I had only ever experienced with other subjects, and finally achieving it with math felt so freeing.

What was going on? Well, my professor had been right, obviously. I, like so many others, had grown up thinking I was bad at math because of my bad experiences with math. But when I finally worked up the courage to challenge that idea, it crumbled because it simply wasn't true.

I got an A in that class. And in my second algebra class, which was a condensed summer course and an insane amount of work. 

I still count those classes among my greatest personal achievements. Not just because of my overachievingly high performance, but because they were when I finally broke my bad-at-math curse that I had accidentally cast on myself as a child.

Now, years later, looking back on that whole long episode, I've finally realized what had happened. My competency in both English and math was not dependent on my inherent intellectual ability. It was dependent on my self-confidence. While my confidence in my language abilities had crystallized by kindergarten so that absolutely no one could make me doubt it, my confidence in my mathematical abilities had been destroyed before it could even be built up. No wonder I had been so lousy at math. I just felt all that was in it for me was failure, embarrassment, and the disapproval of the adults.

My competency was also dependent on how much I perceived both fields as enjoyable. I was a total bookworm. Books were my jam. The idea that reading and research could be boring to anyone was simply incomprehensible. On the other hand, no one seemed to like math. The teachers hated it and the other kids hated it. I was sadly given very little idea that numbers could actually be fun.

Looking back at my childhood, I can now see the signs that I could have grown up enjoying math. One of my favorite parts of a children's encyclopedia was an excerpt from the book The Phantom Tollbooth about the mathematical land of Digitopolis and all of the fascinating math concepts introduced to the main character. My wonderfully nerdy uncle also gave me a book of logic puzzles which I greatly enjoyed and treasured.

In fourth grade, I became so bored in class with the part of the math textbook we were working from, that I decided to read ahead and discovered the chapter on probabilities and statistics, which I thought was much more interesting than long division and which I read thoroughly. (Maybe that explains why I like pen-and-paper roleplaying so much.) I was dismayed when we never reached that chapter within the course of the school year. 

In sixth grade, when I started pre-algebra, the first day I loved it because it was so unlike elementary mathematics. "Finally", I thought, "math that is interesting!" Not only that, but I discovered I had a natural knack for quickly figuring out simple algebraic equations in my head. I thought my teacher would be so impressed. Nope. He was exasperated with me for not solving the equation in the way he had taught, and for not showing my work. Math had become banal and dull again.

In kindergarten, I proudly proclaimed to my teacher that I had figured out how to count to a hundred. I still remember the cynical way in which she said to me, "No, you can't" as though she fully believed I was a chronic liar. I immediately began to prove her wrong by counting aloud. I managed to get to around fifty before she made me stop. (She didn't like me very much in general.)

In fact, in reminiscing about elementary school, I've come to believe that the problem was not that math was too hard for me. It was that it was too easy. And we spent so much time going over the easy things, which I usually got right away, that I became immensely bored. And because I'd had very little experience with math compared with reading, I then concluded that all math was probably hopelessly boring and I hated it. 

Because I hated it, I stopped trying to learn it. When I stopped trying to learn it, I stopped being good at it. And then of course nobody else thought I was good at it, either. And that created a negative feedback mechanism, as their belief that I was bad at math caused me to feel even worse about my math skills.

I'm so grateful to my algebra professor for breaking that vicious cycle. I'd had teachers before who liked math, but their enjoyment of math alone did not get to the root of the problem like my algebra teacher had with his wise insight and bottom-up approach.

Now, I love math. I love it so much that I research theoretical mathematics while I eat. I love it so much that I've just finished a novel where the heroine is a young mathematician who must save the world by solving a math formula.

What am I trying to say with all of this?

Don't doubt yourself. Don't let preconceptions - your own or others' - hold you back. Challenge them.

Your attitude often determines your results. If you firmly believe something comes naturally to you and you're quite good at it, don't be surprised if you find success in it. If you are convinced that you are terrible at something and you'll never get the hang of it, don't be surprised when you find yourself failing.

Adults can make or break a situation for children. Can you imagine what sort of a different experience I might have had if my teachers had praised me for my math precociousness instead of calling me a liar or demanding that I conform? If they'd asked me why I wasn't doing my homework instead of calling me stupid? If they'd said, "I noticed you seem to be bored with your in-class work; do you already understand these concepts? Do you want to try some interesting applications for this math instead of solving 50 identical equations?"

And finding the joy in something changes everything. You would be surprised at how far you can go and how much you can achieve when you are truly enjoying something and find it fun.

All very good lessons.

By the way, if you're not too fond of math, I encourage you to give it a try one of these days. You're probably better at it than you think.

No comments:

Post a Comment