There is a portion of the population that can stand in front of a chalkboard that’s covered with numbers and variables and, as if by magic, make sense of everything they see. These people know what algorithms are and how to use them. They can also calmly and easily calculate the tip when presented with a dinner bill. While I personally think these folks should be called something grand and mystical, like “sum sorcerers” or “number whisperers,” usually we just say that they’re “good at math.”
I’m in awe of these savvy individuals because I have very little mathematical talent myself. Truth be told, I’m actually bad at it. I use a calculator to solve equations as simple as 4 + 7 and have received my fair share of Ds on algebra and geometry tests. Reading numbers comprising more than four digits out loud is tricky, sometimes nigh impossible, for me. I even have trouble telling time on an analog clock! In seventh grade, I had an analog watch, which was given to me by some well-meaning family member. I wore it every day because it was red and black, my favorite colors. When anyone asked me what time it was, I lied and said that my watch was broken, rather than suffer the embarrassment of having someone see me slowly count by fives and make whatever additional calculations were necessary just to tell them that it was 2:43.
There’s a theory that people who think they’re bad at math just aren’t devoting enough time to understanding it. I won’t argue with the idea that you have to work hard to be successful, but I’m pretty offended by the implication that the reason I can’t simplify a logarithmic expression is sheer laziness. While I’m sure there are people who look at algebra problems, say, “Screw this, it’s too hard,” then run off to watch fart compilation videos as they bask in their own ignorance, that certainly isn’t what’s going on with me.
I started working to improve my math skills in the fourth grade, when I noticed that my friends weren’t laboring over their division worksheets in the same tortured way that I was. When I was in elementary school, I studied flashcards, drilled myself on multiplication tables, and played Math Blaster, a space-themed arithmetic computer game, during my summer vacations. In high school, when the chasm between my lowly math abilities and the abilities of many of my classmates widened, I often stayed up late at night working on homework as my math-whiz grandfather tutored me over the phone, then went to school early the next morning to get additional help from my math teacher or friends. Because of these efforts, I never got any Fs on my report card, but the subject never became any less complicated.
Each new school year, I waited for something to click in my mind—for an “aha!” moment when I’d be able to approach a polynomial expression with total confidence. I didn’t think that the doors to understanding mathematical principles were sealed shut to me, but it felt like in order to pass through those doors, I had to know some kind of secret handshake or code that I hadn’t figured out yet.
Struggling with math makes me worry that I’m stalling out intellectually, which wavers between feeling disappointing and depressing. On one agonizing night when I was 16, my scientist mom tried to help me with my Algebra II homework, and my mind just refused to absorb anything that she was telling me. It was as if all of my brain cells had formed a wall in protest and were like, Get out of here with that ‘inverse function’ mess—we demand more Backstreet Boys lyrics! As the night went on, I made no progress, and the frustration I felt with the homework ballooned into a greater frustration with myself. I thought I was a moron, and even though now I understand that was an overreaction, at the time it felt chillingly, insurmountably true. I mean, it wasn’t as if I was trying to split atoms—this was 11th grade math, which nearly everyone but me in class seemed able to do! I shut down completely and started to sob while my mom, who basically earned a living analyzing numerical data, began yelling at me, trying to convince me that this wasn’t something to be upset over. Her shoddy attempt at consolation just made me even more upset because she was, in my mind, gifted with an understanding of math that made it impossible for her to relate to my struggles.
Popular wisdom holds that there may be a psychological element to why I find math so difficult. Although there are many studies about the way girls are socialized to believe we’re mathematically deficient, I’ve never thought that my gender was the root of my problem because, as I’ve said, my mom is a scientist who doesn’t even need a calculator to do number stuff. But at one point, I did believe that my defeatist attitude might be holding me back. When I was in school, I’d try to force myself to “think positive” when I was doing my math homework or studying. I’d say things like “You’re a number crunchin’ champ,” or “You’re gonna solve the crap out of these equations.” Inspired by Good Will Hunting, I even wrote “You’re wicked smaht” on a piece of paper, which I tacked on to the corkboard in my room for motivation. But then I’d get a D on a quiz and a sad trombone would start playing in my head.
Things haven’t gotten much better for me over the years. As we all know, math is everywhere—it’s on every discount sign in the aisles of our favorite stores, it’s in proportions that we observe in a painting, it’s in our recipes, it’s the reason our phones work—and because of this, I often wonder what the world is like for people who are fluent in the language of numbers. What does it feel like to be a statistician capable of predicting the outcomes of presidential elections? What is like to say a number like “777,777,777” without any hesitation?
I don’t think that I’ve ever been as emotional about math as I was in high school, but there are still moments now when I’m hard on myself. When I’m slowly making change or counting money, I think, There are eight-year-olds who could probably do this more quickly. With age, though, I’ve gained a clearer understanding of my intellectual strengths: I’m perceptive, creative, and have a talent for historical analysis. Simply remembering that I have these talents can boost my confidence when I’m feeling discouraged or dejected and prevent math from feeling like this totally oppressive force in my life. Part of counteracting mathematical anguish is acknowledging that people excel in different areas and knowing that no one is the best at everything. I accept that numbers aren’t my forte because academically and career-wise, I’m more interested in the humanities…and never having to cry over an algebra problem again, if I don’t have to. ♦