I may be one of the only Mensans on Earth who scored in the 55th percentile in math. It’s unusual for a smart person to be that bad at something - usually people’s abilities are pretty level across the board. I’m starting to want to challenge my image of myself as someone who Is Bad At Math. This means confronting my math anxiety.
Does math make me anxious because I’m bad at it, or am I bad about it because I psych myself out?
A woman engineer math-splained to me once that I must have formally decided, as a middle school girl, to quit being good at math in order to impress boys. This was not her opinion, it was FACT. We had known each other for 15 minutes.
On the contrary, I wanted to tell her, I had always assumed I was good at math and always would be. I thought it just went along with being a kid in the talented and gifted program. My mom was good at math and her mom was a bookkeeper. Why would I not follow in their footsteps?
I started having issues in Intro to Algebra in 7th grade. By Geometry in 9th grade, I knew I was in trouble.
The problem was that I might do well in one section that I understood, and then do poorly in another section that was over my head. As long as my grades were Bs and Cs, I kept getting moved along. Then a new section would come along that built on something else, usually something that I had not mastered, and of course I would get even more confused. The further along I got, the worse it got, and the harder it would be to identify the source of the problem.
My emotional reactions to struggling with this material were probably pretty standard. Shame, guilt, frustration, dread.
Someone who is good at doing something, but not good at teaching, will often react in disbelief. WHY are you not getting this? What’s your problem? But of course you don’t know what you don’t know. If you could explain what it was that you didn’t understand, you would understand it.
I did extra work. I did the practice tests. I tried the extra credit problems. I stayed after with my kind-hearted Santa of a math teacher, who gave up many an afternoon to try to teach me proofs. I asked my friends. I even got my high school boyfriend to tutor me. (He now has a PhD and academic publications to his name).
None of this got me far. Grit, unfortunately, is not always the answer to every problem.
One of my issues was making minor arithmetic errors while solving the main problem. I would often write down numerals in the wrong order, something that still confounds me as an adult when I’m tired. I have no idea how to resolve this or whether it will always be a stumbling block.
As an adult, I think the structure of math classes is fundamentally damaging for the majority. Each student should simply keep working on one section until it’s easy. We should never be pushed along the continuum without mastering something. This could easily be done with software, or a self-paced course with a workbook. In a traditional classroom setting, students like me are always going to be left further and further behind.
Let me pause to say that I am a Mensan who was identified as ‘talented and gifted’ at age 8. I can read six writing systems, including Japanese, Greek, and Cyrillic. I can write with my right hand while using chopsticks with my left hand. I’m... not average.
When someone like me, a smug little bookworm, a kid whom other kids called ‘Brainiac’ - when someone like me hits an academic wall by age 12, then it’s possible there might be an issue with the pedagogy and not just the student.
This is how I start to rebuild my fragile image as a math student. I pull on other parts of my identity that are stronger. I am a grind. I am good at parking my butt and hitting the books. I am willing to do practice tests over and over again until I improve my score.
The reason all this is coming up is that I decided I want to go to grad school, and grad school probably means taking the GRE. That’s the standardized test that gets you in. I knew enough to know that the GRE has a math section. Logically, then, if I want to go to grad school then I need to do some remedial math. I haven’t taken a math class since 1993 and it would be very surprising to just waltz in and get a passing score.
I did some basic web searching, and in a few minutes I had the basic facts put together. You can take the GRE any day of the year, either proctored or online. Yes, you can do practice exams, take prep courses, and/or hire a tutor. As a young student, the cost of this stuff would have made my eyes roll back in my head. As a mature business professional, I barely batted an eye.
Then I sat down and looked at some practice questions. I had no idea how to tackle any of them, not even the first one.
My eyes teared up. My husband asked me to read him one.
“I don’t want to.”
“I don’t want you to realize how much trouble I’m in because you would... pity me.”
Let me pause to say that my husband is an aerospace engineer who uses calculus every day in his work.
Another person would look at this scenario and wonder, what’s the problem? You mean you want to crush the GRE and you can just ask your husband to tutor you for free? It’ll be easy for him. His incentive would be for you to get an advanced degree and then increase your earning potential accordingly.
From inside the scenario, it feels like being in an arena with a man-eating lion and no spear. Just me and my shame down here. No big deal, it’s only me confronting my single largest self-esteem issue, one that seems arbitrarily placed between me and something I really really want.
Chances are, I may still be able to figure out a hack that gets me accepted into grad school without taking the GRE. I got my bachelor’s without taking a single math class. If anyone can figure out a way around this, if anyone has enough motivation to try, it’s me.
The question is really whether I intend to go through life letting this one single thing kick me around. Am I willing to let my math anxiety continue to control what I do and what I don’t do? Do I end my days letting it win? Or do I pick myself up and prepare to fight?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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