Saturday, November 14, 2015

Math Anxiety

I like the shape of things.. the shape of certain typography, crispy old maps, scrollwork on a building, perfect circles,(or even crumbly edible circles), things with chocolate, starlight in an empty field, and thumbtacks on a big wall atlas.

Speaking of atlases, I like knowing where I'm going.. so I know when I'll get there. None of this floundering in panic, unsure of landmarks. No; when I get on a bus I enjoy the ride more if I can perceive the destination. Like reading a great book, I like to sneak a peak at the last chapter of a book so the surprise of the end isn't as intense. Some people call it spoilers, I call it having a clue.

Having a clue is not somethng I'll ever admit to having had regarding maths.. any math. I get why we need it.. People use it every day. Even historians use it! There's a purpose to it, and I like that. Sometimes I even find myself admiring the way math looks.. but it's like admiring a poem in another language. It's pretty but what does it mean if you can't translate it?

..and although I like the shape of "pi" I'd much rather eat "pie."
apple pie
my kind of "pie"..


I took math in grade school because it was required. As I got older I got worse at it. I got to the point in high school where every day was excrutiating.. I don't think my math teacher should have been teaching. His temperament was much better suited for sweaty boys on a football field. Sort of a 'tough love' ball breaker. He had no time to explain anything.. he just plowed through it. The kids in my class were no better. I don't think any of us were that bright, but they were good at bullying. Suppose you got a problem wrong and your teacher cracked wise about how dumb you were? Your only reprieve was if he was making fun of another student.. Your classmates would punch you or trip you on your way to the board. Thanks for no favors, there. I'm not sure how I got through it. I recall trying to take geometry once, and while I liked it (and the teacher was 180 degree difference!) I wasn't prepped for it and dropped it. Oh how I wanted to 'get' it though. Some people aren't well suited for math.

I was the sort of person who excelled at vocabulary.. I was a voracious reader in my spare time. I'm also inately curious about things and people. The problem with how they taught math when I was growing up, (and this may be the case still) is that no one has time to tell you the 'why' of anything. Why do we have math? Who created the various formulas and theoroms and why and when do we want to use them?? It was all a matter of "this is what we're doing today and this is what you'll be doing for homework.." Why am I doing this? Why do I need to solve it a certain way? Why does it work (or not?) No time for that, just do it.

Except I couldn't do it. I would sit at the kitchen table in front of my math homework staring at these problems like they would eventually just jump into my head and make sense. I couldn't get help with it and I wasn't learning in school. I would eventually find myself sitting in the darkness weeping every night. I managed to graduate high school with the bare minimum of math skills. I managed to pass my ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational exam) with the bare minimum of math skills. I attempted to go to college and not take maths, and when I did, I ended up dropping the class.

Fast forward some 24 years later and I'm returning to school, I've gotten older.. my math skills haven't gotten any better, the kids are young enough to be my own if I had any and many of my instructors are some 10 years younger than me. Suffice to say, I'm too old to be sitting in maths weeping like a 14yr old.

I took a placement exam which ended up timing out on me as I took too long to figure an answer. I tested into Pre-Algebra, which was where I was in high school, getting my a$$ kicked (somewhat literally) by my classmates. Just thinking about having to take all those math classes I would need to get to Statistics made my stomach churn and the waterfalls of tears start up. Who wants to return to that??


I got a couple different referrals for the same maths prof. from classmates in my California History class some semesters back.. (I love how when you ask people they're like "Whatever you do, don't take that person!!") I met the instructor and they seemed really nice and pleasant and energetic. When they were out of the room I got my first honest feedback from another student saying the prof was really nice but "I'm failing this class!" um.. OK. Maybe I should have ran away right then but, no, that would be rude. I talked to the prof a bit more about the book we'd be using, got the info and before I headed out they gave me info on a summer class and invited me to show up and check it out. How can you say no to that??

I actually did show up the first day of summer session. I found the class and it was yet to start. Within about ten minutes of waiting with a handful of other students, I had a panic attack and scampered off to the bathroom to weep my guts out and then left the school without checking in to let them know I tried to attend. I'm sure the person had better things to worry about.

As it was I did show up for my actual class Fall of last year.. I didn't do that great but I did a lot better than I expected. The first couple times I was waiting for something from the sky to fall on my head. I was waiting to get called on or called out.. or something. There is a regular rhythm to the class.. There's no big surprises, no hoop jumping, no drama really. It was difficult.. and it's still difficult. I'm not doing that great in general. I failed my Intro to Algebra last semester (I got a "D" which is failing.. you need a "C" to move on to the next gauntlet) This semester I'm taking Algebra for Stats.. Suffice to say I'm not much better at that then the Intro Algebra and I'll fail out of this too if I keep it up. I keep showing up though, and some days are really good, and when they aren't, I haven't given up. ..not yet!


What I've picked up outside of math is that there's these great philosophers that did more than a bit of dabbling in math.. and some of the great minds of science (of course) are fluent in math. The things I enjoy are because of math: The Enlightment, Art History, Political Science.. they all have elements or routes to maths in some way. Words. Theory. History. People. Historic Perspective. Happiness.

math gods
Math history and popular culture.. a way in (and out of the anxiety)?

COMMITTED (or just crazy?)

I already decided that some things would need to take a backseat to my pursuit of Statistics.. I already made the mental and emotional leap to having math as the center of my universe this next year, so maybe I should act like it? I'm changing tack and charting a new course. My goal isn't a math degree, it's a History AA for transfer. I can't get that if I don't pass Statistics. I can't pass Statistics if I don't pass this other class, and I can't pass this other class if I don't "get" it or I don't find a way to understand the what and why of what I'm doing. How do you drive a car if you don't understand the mechanics of the vehicle or the laws of physics? (OK people do drive cars without understanding how their car runs or that whole pesky laws of motion thing!)

I don't drive, but I get around OK. I guess that's what I need to do (learn to get around OK), so I'm going to try this, (as well keep studying & practicing..) and maybe do some deep breathing exercises.. Although I'm not capable of deep breathing either.. the lungs aren't that great; but neither are my math skills.

ps: if anyone has suggestions for great math theory books,histories or relatable 'junk food' (I was thinking Outliers or Tipping Point would be a couple good ones but maybe not (they're more sociology than math) feel free to comment. It's not that reading will teach me math but give me another angle, POV of looking at it all.. and hopefully answer the "why."

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