Monday, January 17, 2011


I went back to classes last week. It's a little less novel this time around and I'm finding it harder to get enthused about it. Part of this is the seriously long days away from hearth and home. Part of this is that I am facing yet another nemesis this semester.

The grandfather of all that is evil in the universe.

Math. Specifically basic Algebra.

I made a lot of jokes about my issue with memorizing maps last semester, but it was minor compared to my life-long struggle with all things numbered. There is a very good reason that my calculator is my favorite appliance (almost as important as the coffee pot).

I will save you the entire trip down memory lane--just a quick glance in the window will do. I had a mathematically gifted father who believed that seven year old me was only being stubborn when I tried to tell him I didn't understand my math homework. When I couldn't immediately solve a problem he gave me (which-by the way--was based on math I had not yet learned to do), he then yanked me up by one arm and spanked me, telling me I was lazy and sent me to bed without supper. He refused to allow my mother to find remedial help and my mother had to sneak around and get it for me when he was on month long road trips. This is actually how I learned to read (amazing place--under their tutelage I jumped from a first grade reading level to several years ahead of grade level almost over night), but before they could resolve my issues with numbers, Dad saw the price tag and ended it.

She's just lazy, he said, and yelled at me some more.

This obviously isn't the only reason I didn't do well in math, but it certainly didn't solve the problem.

As I've mentioned here before, I decided when the boys were small that they would get a better start than I did. I exhausted the basic concepts--spending the first years using manipulatives to teach adding and subtracting and multiplying and dividing--even before they knew they were doing it. We did fractions and ratios in the kitchen, learned how to measure area and perimeter while helping their dad with household repairs, and made use of rote memorization  when possible (when did this become such a bad thing?). Any time we learned something new we stayed with it until everyone understood.

You'll note that I said "we". Funny thing about this was as I was teaching them, my own "inner child" was learning as well. I cannot tell you how many times I had a-hah moments as I read through explanations and examples and then worked the problems myself so I could explain it to them. However, since the boys all go off to high school about the time Algebra becomes more complicated I've only progressed as far as the basics.

But I've returned to face this personal battlefield at a good time. There is more help out there than there has ever been. And we're using a self-paced online program that targets what the student doesn't know and does not drill them endlessly on what they do. There are deadlines, but they easy enough to meet, and there's no trying to keep up with a teacher as she prattles on about identities  and associations and commutations and integers that aren't real as her hand flies across the board slashing through numbers, adding negatives and multiplying my confusion. There will be paper and pencil tests and outside homework, but the lessons themselves are learned independently. This suits me perfectly. Let me work things out for myself at my own pace and I will nearly always succeed--often with style.

As I've made my way through the first "chapter" of math problems this weekend, I've been struck over and over by the simplicity of the rules. That there is no great mystery here, that once one knows how to read the signs, the path, steep though it is, is fairly straightforward.

Will there be an A+ and a new passion for the world waiting for me at the end of this semester, like there was in Geography last fall? I don't know.  But I do know that the deep sense of defeat I've carried with me for most of my life, the secret suspicion that I'm not very smart, is fading fast. This is a new year with new possibilities, promises, and challenges and I am ready to embrace them. Even if there's numbers involved.


Scotty said...

Well, I've always loved maths so if I can help at any time, just holler...


Debby said...

My dad was quite rough on me about my difficulties w/ math as well. He also thought that I was lazy. In any case, after I was grown and on my own, a young man was struggling with college alegebra. He asked for help, telling me, 'you're smart'. I told him that math was a real issue for me, but when I sat down to look it over, I understood it immediately, which shocked me. I was able to explain it so that he could understand it which shocked him. Furthermore, when I had problem solving math last spring, I did very well, understanding things that confounded the rest of the class, saying stupid things like 'Well, it has to be that number because nothing else 'fits'' and I didn't understand what I meant anymore than the rest of the class did. It was a strange experience, but I am absolutely sure that you will find yourself doing much better than you anticipated. Truly. I'll be waiting to read about it.

Pencil Writer said...

Math is weird for so many people. I'm sorry you had such a traumatic experience early on. I had less trauma, maybe more drama, my 9th grade year. New school. (Had essentially Martian stories for 8th grade math.--so there was not help there, and I LOVED numbers and math before all that.) Well, I FAILED, COMPLETELY failed 1st year Algebra. My dad was a math whiz, among other things, and I felt miserable.

We moved back to where we'd moved from before 9th grade and I took Algebra in summer school. I fell in love with Algebra. I made an A. But don't talk to me about trig. Trig and I have never seemed to get along.

I'm sure you'll be fabulous! And I mean that sincerely, Mary. You go have fun with algebra. It's meant to be fun. (DO they still have you work quadratic equations? I used to love doing those.) Maybe that's not even what they're called. Man! It's been a hundred years since I took college algebra.

Mary O. Paddock said...

Scotty- I might just take you up on that at some point. It might be a good excuse to try the Facebook chat feature. :)

Debby-I think I'm experiencing a little of what you're talking about (though it's early yet). Was much amused yesterday when the man sitting next to me in class turned and said, as we were getting ready to go, "You're just in here to brush up on some rusty skills, right?" I chuckled and assured him that I was actually in the process of acquiring them. He looked at me like he didn't believe me. The fact that I had spent half my weekend covering the subject matter over and over had paid off.

PW--It is fun in a strange way. I keep reminding myself to think of it as a puzzle and that helps a little.

PaintedPromise said...

when you get a chance, go here:

you are "This One" #14 :)

Anonymous said...

I am allergic to algebra.


I get hives just thinking about it....

Mary O. Paddock said...

Painted Promise--I'll fit time in for it this weekend. Thank you.

RH--Yeah. I'm not much better off than you are, but at least the hives have subsided. :)