Estimated reading time: 1 minute, 49 seconds

The biggest fights my father and I had were about math. I kid you not.

The year was 1984. I was a junior in high school, taking Algebra II. Radicals were kicking my scrawny, little butt.

(Remember radicals? They look like this: [pmath]sqrt{24}[/pmath]. In Algebra II, you mostly learned to simplify them, as well as add, subtract, multiply and divide with them.)

My father wanted to help, and he had the patience of Job. But he was not great at accepting that I didn’t understand. And I wasn’t great at controlling my emotions. I hollered, cried and probably threw things. Somehow, I got the impression that my dad thought I *couldn’t* do math, and I did what any strong-willed girl will: I dug in my heels.

That’s when I started drinking coffee, actually. I was so determined to show my dad–and my Algebra II teacher, Mr. Gardner–that I got up at 4:30 a.m., sat in my dad’s easy chair with a cup of coffee and a stack of sharpened pencils, and did problem after problem after problem.

I did every single radicals problem in the textbook. And then I did them again. I took what Mr. Gardner and my dad taught me and figured the darned things out. It took time, but I was determined not to give up.

Why on earth would I do this? Well, I’m stubborn, for one. But probably the biggest reason is Mrs. Ivey. She was my geometry teacher the year before, and she changed my perspective about math. You see, before then, I *knew* I couldn’t do math. Mrs. Ivey convinced me that I was wrong.

She and my father are the reasons I majored in math. I found out I’m a math teacher, not a mathematician. (Sometimes we’re one or the other.) I’m fascinated by the ways people choose to do math, not by complex computations or proofs.

Math geeks aren’t always born. Sometimes a teacher inspires us. Sometimes we’re dragged kicking and screaming. And sometimes we just learn to deal with math–because we have to.

What’s your math story? Share it in the comments section!

Patrick McCarty says

Laura,

This is a great story. I’m very glad you shared this. My boys have completely different minds when it comes to math. For our youngest, it seems to come more naturally. For the eldest, it’s more of a struggle. Now I know that for the ones that struggle, it’s possible to conquer it. Finding a teacher like you would make it easier.

Laura says

Glad my experience helped, Patrick. I believe that parents’ attitudes about math (and math ability) play a big role in how kids see themselves. They are always watching and listening!

Not Evelyn says

Well, let’s see. I remember the pimply neck of the boy who sat in front of me in Algebra I. I remember being pleased that I could figure out how fast those trains were going, or how much to charge for a mixture of nuts or candy or screws. (The kind of problem that starts out, “George wants to sell GORP, but he only has six pounds of peanuts that cost 65 cents per pound, and three pounds of chocolates that cost $1.50 a pound…..” I spent each afternoon on the phone with a classmate as we solved the problems slowly. We were on a party line, however, so there were times when someone would demand that we get off the phone.

The next year was Plane Geometry — turns out I have more difficulty with the visual problems than with the written ones. Plus my young teacher had just gotten engaged and spent most of the year in a romantic fog. We had a deaf boy in our class who was an expert lip-reader. But he had no idea what the teacher was saying she she turned to the board to write her solutions to the problems! If I took ten steps to prove a problem the teacher did it in 6! If I took 7 steps, she said it required 15!

Skip to college when I had to take one math course as a liberal arts major. The teacher was a brilliant young man who had no idea how to teach a classroom of non-math majors. He put elaborate explanations on the board. We asked, “But, how, why..? ” He would start over and explain each problem exactly the same way again! And again! and again! As our eyes glazed over…. Finally, a delegation of classmates went to the head of the Math Department and requested that they give us another teacher! (This was almost unheard of!) They did, and we all passed the course.

Laura says

I’ve always had trouble with the train problems, Not Evelyn! *smile* Teachers make such a difference, don’t they? Just because a person understands math doesn’t mean they’re good at explaining it.

Susan Weiner says

What a great story!

My brain and math simply aren’t on the same wavelength. I had to deal with math to earn my CFA charter. It took a lot of work.

Laura says

I know what you mean, Susan. There are aspects of math that are harder for me, too. Probability is one of them — but I have to just buckle down, get out of my comfort zone and will myself to have confidence!

Kirsten says

Yes, great story! Can’t wait to check out the book.

I took advanced math classes in high school, but it was always a struggle. Then in college I took statistics, expecting it to be a similar challenge. But amazingly, it just clicked and I ended up getting hired as a statistics teaching assistent the next semester. That still amazes me. I’m not sure if it was the variety of math, or that I had a good teacher who finally made it make sense, but the experience taught me that even a math-phobe can have a (minor) epiphany. It can happen!

Laura says

Stats is not my BFF! But this spring, I edited a prob stats high school course for an online educational development company. I learned so much! It doesn’t come easily, though. On the other hand, I can do geometry proofs until the cows come home!

Lisa says

Oy! Math is not my friend, Laura. But, you seem like such a friendly and approachable person that math almost seems more likeable because of that. In all seriousness, I think I have something like math dyslexia because I start to sweat when I see a series of numbers. It’s a testament to my perseverance that I passed high school math and my university statistics course. Kudos to you.

Laura says

Thanks so much, Lisa! I am absolutely compelled to convince people that they are capable of doing math. At the same time, there are some real learning differences that create big obstacles for some people.

You are not alone in sweating when you see numbers!

Pat LeBoeuf says

Laura,

Love the blog.

I had terrible math teachers in grade school and thought I just didn’t math in high school. I never knew that I was a math geek until I got to college. My oldest son, Isaac always talks about getting me a tee shirt that says, “Math is Fun” because I always tell him, “Today’s math is fun!”, since I have home schooled him through the sixth grade.

Next year he is going to do Keystone’s online school for the seventh grade but I know I’ll be right there doing all of his math homework when no one’s looking, just because.

Laura says

Sometimes we math geeks are late bloomers! *smile* Keep practicing with Isaac’s homework!

Julie says

I have a strong bent for memorizing, and math was the one class in school where I couldn’t apply that strength. Unlike English essays, there is only one right answer in math. Needless to say, that answer eluded me most of my elementary school days.

As an adult, I made peace with math as long as it involved money. I eyed business school for an MBA for several years, but learned I’d have to pass a series of math-heavy tests. No big deal, I told myself. I’m a grown-up, I can get help with this. So I borrowed my friend’s daughter’s middle school math textbook, and ended up in tears. I tried to hire tutor and no one would step forward.

So, in the end, I gave up the MBA dream and moved on to a world where anything I need to know is covered with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division on a calculator.

Laura says

Re memorizing: I have poor memorization skills, and I thought that held me back in elementary math. I still can’t remember some of my times tables! *smile*

And while, yes, in many cases there is only one answer in math, there are some situations when that just isn’t true. (Parallel lines are not parallel when they’re laid on a sphere, for example.) Even better, there are often many different ways to approach math problems. Give a problem to seven different people, and you’re likely to see seven different ways of solving it!

I’m so sorry that you gave up the idea of an MBA. It’s never too late!

Laura says

Whoops! Somehow I posted twice!

Diana Burrell says

My parents are to blame here. They were always saying things like, “She’s just not very good at math, is she?” or “She’s a wordsmith, not a mathematician.” I loved reading, studying history, and even science, but the minute math got involved, forget it. I threw up my hands and gave up. Everything else came so easily to me that I was convinced I was simply bad at math and nothing would ever change.

I took a gap year between high school and college and took a remedial college-level math/algebra/trig course to help my college applications since my math SAT scores (and grades) were less-than-stellar. I did okay on the first couple tests, but then the work got harder and my grades began to slip. The professor asked if I’d be willing to come in during office hours for some extra help. In the past, I would have avoided it, but this time I knew I had to do well, so I started showing up each week. I don’t remember what we worked on, but what he taught me was how to think about math — to slow down, organize the problem, work carefully and deliberately, and then to double-check my work. Unbelievably no teacher had ever done this, and it made math not easier, but more enjoyable for me. My grades immediately improved and I ended up getting an A- in the class (without a bell curve, hee!) I wouldn’t say I’m a math geek, but I’ve come to appreciate the elegance of math, esp. since I like to cook, bake and knit (all math-intensive activities).

Laura, I can’t wait to read your book. 🙂

Laura says

Thanks so much, Diana. It means a lot to me that you’re looking forward to my book!

So many parents get caught in the can do/can’t do math trap with their kids. And one of the reasons is that it’s reinforced in our culture. For whatever reason, we grow up thinking we either have the math gene or don’t!

I just learned of a book that looks fantastic: Love + Hate Mathematics. It looks like the authors will be doing a Q&A or a guest post here in coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Nancy says

A prolonged illness kept me out of high school for three months during my sophomore year, and by the time I came back, I was so hopelessly behind that the school simply had me withdraw from my Algebra I and skip math for a whole year. Honestly, although I quickly caught up in all my other subjects, I feel as if I just kept getting further and further behind in math and have never caught up since. Now in my 50s, I’m a whiz with words, but I’m ashamed to admit I am dreadfully inept at even everyday math. I’m going to follow your blog–I’m not stupid, just so very rusty!

Laura says

How frustrating! That is a problem with math — the concepts build so much that it’s easy to get behind.

Stay with it, though. It’s never too late!

Wendy says

Huge congrats, Laura! Great blog.

I struggled with my throughout high school until I had an epiphany in tenth grade in the form of Mr. Saxe, who actually made math fun. Though I still feel math-phobic, I found that when I was line producing multi-million dollar TV shows and was responsible for balancing cash flow statements & budgets, as well as calculating time sheets for the crew and performers, all I had to do was channel Mr. Saxe and I figured stuff out…

Laura says

Great teachers leave great legacies.

Tracy says

Scary… reading this, I would have thought you were looking through the window of my home when I was growing up. Now I see the same thing happening between my husband and son. That is why I now tutor him in Math instead.

Laura says

So glad to know that I wasn’t alone!

Carole says

Laura,

Great blog and great post!

Laura says

Thanks so much, Carole! Hope your book is doing well!

Laura

Marcia says

When I was a senior in high school, in 1958-9, I loved Math. But to take 4th year Math, I would have been 1 of only 2 girls (in a graduating class of 498) to do that – I chickened out (the other girl was kind of a nerd). Have regretted it ever since. I did go on to get Certified to teach Math in Virginia, but I just needed it to fill my schedule when there weren’t enough German classes, so ended up with lower level classes and they aren’t fun. But I’ve had some of my failures come up and say they liked my class – I was still nice to them, even when they didn’t work. 🙁

Laura says

See, for me, foreign languages are a huge, huge challenge. Go figure.

I find that teaching lower-level math classes can be a lot of fun, because there are so many non-geeky ways to apply what they’re learning. Unfortunately, many of my students in those classes were beaten down already. When student believes he can’t do math, well, that’s a tough hurdle to cross.

Emily Rogan says

Laura, I grew up believing I wasn’t “good in math,” and I think it was a self-fulfilling prophesy. I am trying so hard not to pass that down to my kids, especially my daughter. Fortunately, so far, she thinks she’s quite good in math!

Laura says

Way to go, Emily! It’s a lot like body image, right? Our kids pick up on what we see in ourselves.

Gina says

I was lost. I picked the college that I attended by the look of it (blue stone buildings at James Madison University.) I arrived as an Undeclared and remained so for as long as I could. My teen years were spent trying to get out of myself with whatever could alter my mind. I was lost.

I met math via calculus with a strangely curved line and a non-communicative teacher. For the first time in so very long (maybe my whole life), I asked for help. You taught me integration, Laura.

I took it from there. Math became the one thing that I understood intuitively, and realized looking back, that I had the whole time. I turned my life around having learned to follow my intuition. Ever grateful.