Live Through This

Math Attacks

My educational anxieties, by the numbers.

Collage by Ruby A.

Collage by Ruby A.

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. ♦

36 Comments

  • anaisabel13 July 8th, 2014 3:40 PM

    It’s actually unbelievable how much I can relate to this; I love the humanities, but when I was in the sixth grade, I somehow tested my way into the advanced math track. Despite math being undeniably Not My Thing. I’ve been regretting it ever since :/

    http://anexerciseofmyfaculties.blogspot.com/

  • rhymeswithorange July 8th, 2014 4:15 PM

    Even though I was in advanced math in high school (I took calculus, number theory and graph theory- what even are the last two??) it was always the class I had to work the hardest at. Now in college for my math credit I took a logic class in the philosophy department and I don’t have to take anymore ever again- benefits of humanities! It’s okay to be good at some things and not others. You’re a great writer Amber :)

    • Amber July 8th, 2014 6:52 PM

      Thank you!

    • Maddy July 8th, 2014 11:37 PM

      dude. that’s super advanced. math is a very difficult subject and those are college-level classes, so of course you had to work hard! good on you, though!

  • alisatimi July 8th, 2014 4:20 PM

    Maths is definitely more about natural talent than about effort! Also, having difficulty reading analogue clocks is one of the main symptoms of dyscalculia – it’s like dyslexia except with numbers. I have a couple of friends who have it, and they get extra time in exams and are allowed to use calculators when others aren’t. It doesn’t make you bad at math necessarily, it just makes numbers more difficult and confusing. Of course I’m not qualified to make any kind of judgment, but maybe if a teacher had sent you to a specialist early on, you wouldn’t have had to suffer so much?

    • mangointhesky July 8th, 2014 5:41 PM

      When you said that math is more about natural talent than effort, I disagreed. Of course, there are people who have disabilities which prevent them from being good at math…
      However, many things can be overcome (including “badness” in math) with a lot of practice and hard work. Math geniuses weren’t born geniuses- they had to work just as hard as anybody else to get better in math.

      At least, this is how I see it. And there are disabilities of types that make it much harder for people to learn these kinds of things (like math)!

      http://electricsea.blogspot.com

      • alisatimi July 9th, 2014 7:47 PM

        I think the main issue is that a lot of people who are “bad” at maths just hate it so much, and if you hate something you’re not necessarily going to want to put a lot of effort into it. I’m pretty average at sports, and like a lot of people I still enjoy them even though I’m not “good” – but somehow I’ve never heard someone say that they enjoy maths despite being bad at it. What is it about maths that causes so much suffering/hate? Maybe it’s just taught wrong.

  • tangratoe July 8th, 2014 4:23 PM

    I have been waiting for an article like this for so long!! I relate to this so well, math gives me huge anxiety and is always my lowest average by 7% at least. It’s especially annoying since it impedes me from feeling confident enough to take something like economics in university, which is something I really want to do. This article really makes me feel so much better, thank you! xx

  • KitKat July 8th, 2014 4:43 PM

    I definitely relate to this anguish. 4th and 5th grade was the worst of it for me (thus far.) It didn’t help that whenever I asked for help my teacher would yell at me for not being able to understand something so “simple.” Being smart at my grade school was “cool”, so I felt socially inferior when my teacher said those things in front of the whole class. I like, cried every night over my homework. Math still isn’t my forte, but much like you Amber, I have realized where my strengths lie and let it go lol

  • Maggie July 8th, 2014 4:49 PM

    I’ve been trying to say that number in my mind for like four minutes. Is it seven hundred billion seventy-seven million seven hundred million seventy-seven thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven?

    • Maggie July 8th, 2014 4:51 PM

      wait, seven hundred million seventy-seven hundred thousand seven hundred thousand seventy-seven thousand seven thousand seven hundred seventy-seven

      • Maggie July 8th, 2014 5:10 PM

        ok my brainy friend who went to Montessorri school where kids learn to be super functional from like age TWO says it’s seven hundred seventy seven million seven hundred seventy seven thousand seven hundred (and) seventy seven

  • KK July 8th, 2014 4:50 PM

    Aw! I always struggled with being upset that I wasn’t good at math and this was so encouraging to read this!! Hahahaha and I thought the part about the analog watch was hilarious because when I was at camp last week, I didn’t wear my watch (that is so cool and I loved) because I was terrified someone might ask me the time and I would get flustered and take a embarrassingly long time to answer.

  • LittleMissNotSoPerfect July 8th, 2014 5:33 PM

    Personally, I have always been fairly good at math, and I have never really been able to understand the struggles of not-so-good-at-math friends and classmates (which has created a certain amount of frustration for everybody). Thank you for giving me a better understanding of other peoples math-experiences.

  • kitsune13 July 8th, 2014 6:24 PM

    Ugh I can relate to this so much. I can remember the first time I realised I struggled with maths – Year 2, sitting on the carpet, our teacher started to explain the concept of multiplication and i just. didn’t. get. it, while my best friend grasped the idea straight away. Needless to say she’s doing a neurobiology MA while I graduated with an English Literature degree. I struggle with clock faces too, and my heart used to sink when I’d have to ask someone the time and they’d just flash me their watch rather than tell me! Just tell me, dammit!! I ended up doing pretty well in maths at school but only because, like you, I knew I was bad at it and worked really hard before my GCSEs with the help of an excellent teacher.

    I don’t think maths is that different from anything else though. Some people are naturally very talented at it in the same way that some people are naturally better at writing, or sport, or music, or art, but even if you don’t have much of an instinct for those things you can still excel with a lot of hard work, passion and determination. Similarly, you can really struggle with all of those things as a result of an innate lack of ability, and sometimes you just have to accept that and allow it to teach you an important lesson about it being ok to be bad at something and ok to fail, but not allowing it to get in the way of trying.

  • fairy_grrrl July 8th, 2014 6:36 PM

    Oh man I can’t tell you how much I relate to this article. Math is literally the worst part of my GPA every year. I remember freshman year I took geometry and I was the worst student in the entire class. I got a B on a test I studied a week in advance for and my friends who crammed all got A’s. Although I’ve thought about the gender aspect I honestly think it’s just the way my brain works as I’d never thought girls were inherently bad at math–I had female math teachers/knew other girls who were great at it. I just can’t do it for the life of me.

    • Chloe22 July 8th, 2014 9:59 PM

      A b is not bad, at all. I would kill for a b in math. Well maybe a plant since I’m a relatively peaceful person.

  • contradicta July 8th, 2014 6:58 PM

    I’m relatively good at maths, however it would take me several tries to say the number 777,777,777 out loud correctly – I suck at reading lon numbers out loud.

  • BigPinkGlitter July 8th, 2014 7:45 PM

    It’s like you read my mind!! This is totally how I feel like 100%. I had to drop out of Algebra last year and go to regular math 8, but now I’m going to high school in August and have to take the same Algebra class, with the same teacher who’s teaching methods don’t work on me. I’m really stressed :’(

  • painting_the_roses_pink July 8th, 2014 8:54 PM

    This article speaks to me!! I am so terrible at math, I’ve always been. Even though I’m a smart girl and even certified gifted my lack of math skills make me feel like an idiot. And like I’ve failed all women everywhere, because I’m not crushing the stereotype that girls are bad at math.

    http://aroseofadifferentcolor.tumblr.com/

  • Moxx July 8th, 2014 8:57 PM

    I’m not sure how to feel about this.
    Sort of disheartened by the comments, too.

  • cube July 8th, 2014 9:20 PM

    this is very easy to relate to. i have dysgraphia which makes it hard to write or draw , and dyscalculia, which is a learning disability that makes it harder for me to count or read analog clocks. it’s a bit obscure though, i didn’t get diagnosed until recently. i thought i was dumb, but i was really just not able to learn or understand it that way. so my advice to someone who has problems with math even if you’ve been trying as hard as you can, to consider getting tested for this!

  • Chloe22 July 8th, 2014 9:58 PM

    This… wow! I can’t believe this article; so relatable! I am homeschooled so I do have the opportunity to spend more time on math, but I get really depressed because I’m a year behind in Algebra. But I’m at pretty much a college level for english now, since I took 12th grade lit and writing last year, and got an A-. Thank you so, so much Amber. You’ve helped me emphasize my strengths and not focus too much on my weaknesses.
    http://criticallycouture.blogspot.com/

  • 1000swedishfish July 8th, 2014 10:16 PM

    It’s becoming a bit of a rookie cliche but you guys do have a scary knack for releasing articles which directly imitate my life. Having just failed a math subject at uni for the first time I needed this, it’s definitely tainted the awesome grades I got in the subjects I love but I need to keep reminding myself that I have other strengths.

  • RabbitRouge July 8th, 2014 11:56 PM

    I know that song sister! Thanks for sharing!! xx

  • Hills July 9th, 2014 1:34 AM

    I have never commented on an article before but this spoke so strongly to me. All through primary school I had trouble with times tables and simple arithmetic, I had trouble telling the time and was convinced I was terrible at maths. I knew I was rubbish and nothing anyone said or did seemed to change that. When I moved to high school something changed, I began to understand concepts and homework and my feelings about maths changed. I was still getting low grades but I felt more positive about maths in general, I was actually enjoying it. My confidence crashed this year but I am passing and am so grateful to my mum who is helping me with maths. Just wanted to say thank you and it’s great to know i’m not alone.

  • SewHappy July 9th, 2014 1:29 PM

    This has really come at a good time for me. I’ve just sat my GCSE exams, but at my school you do maths GCSE a year early. I really enjoyed the GCSE and benefited from doing it early, as I had more time to concentrate on it. I also had a great teacher, so got an A in it. This meant we had to do another maths course the next year. There were a few to choose from, and I did the second-hardest one. I’ve really not enjoyed the past year, I could not get my head around much of the stuff and found my new teacher pretty patronising when I was stuck, which is a shame because I’d grown to enjoy maths during the GCSE. I’m not taking it for A Level next year, but yesterday my friend and I ended up chatting to a man on a stall at a country show who was something to do with maths at a university. My friend was saying how she is deciding whether to do maths or geography next year and he was saying how maths is such a good A Level to have and how everything is down to maths – I do not doubt these things. But then he said that universities look at people applying who have geography A Levels and just turn them away. It made me feel a bit crap, because I love geography and am doing it next year, but mostly because there was a time when I loved maths and it’s not like I can help that I struggle with it. But this article has just made me think, eff that, good for those who enjoy maths but I’m not one of them! Thank you Amber!

    • NotReallyChristian July 11th, 2014 12:10 PM

      Don’t worry! I study at Cambridge University and I know lots of people here who have Geography A-Levels (and not just the ones who study Geography!). I even have an A-Level in Drama, which is meant to be one of the ones big unis get huffy about, but it obviously didn’t affect me getting accepted. That guy was clearly a dick, just do the stuff you like and if you work hard and have a passion for it that will translate into your application (well obviously it has to have a bit to do with what you want to study, but you get me. One Geography A-Level for sure isn’t going to ruin your chances of mega-success).

  • cornfed July 9th, 2014 1:37 PM

    Ugh I feel you. Chemistry is kicking my tuchas and my 4.0 is in jeopardy, but its most likely because it is an accelerated summer course and I haven’t time to get used to the math. I study all the time, but it just isn’t working at all and I’ve been feeling less than cause I’m normally quite good at math and formulas.
    :((((((

  • Paulatte July 9th, 2014 2:29 PM

    Math is so diverse!! Why being bad at calculus should make you bad at “reading” numbers? There is something you should be okay/good at, at least, it’s only proportional!!
    Looking back, I wish people had encouraged me more, and my mom is a scientist, because I guess I just convinced myself I wasn’t supposed to be good at math, and that’s rubbish.
    Math is poetry!!! Viva los maths!

  • Anya N. July 9th, 2014 8:04 PM

    THIS IS MEEEEE omg i’ve technically always been put in a higher math level but i have always struggled. i come home and every day i have to get tutored by one of my brothers because my mom is really bad at math and a lot of the time i still don’t get it, and then when i think i understand something and be like “yeah! i totally got this!” and i end up getting an F on a quiz/test. this year i had a really awful, old, conservative, sexist dude as my math teacher and almost failed the course. i had a D as a final grade for three advisories which had never happened before this year, and i was really hard on myself. this coming year neither of my brothers will be living with me so i dont know what im gonna do for help :( but hopefully i’ll have a better teacher. i’m much better in history and humanities anyway.

    awesome article! as you can see by my dumb ramble i related to it a lot.

  • NotReallyChristian July 11th, 2014 12:06 PM

    I did well in math at school because I was good at memorizing, so I’d just learn the method of solving this or that equation without really understanding it. Now I can’t remember how to do any math at all, seeing as I study art history. BUT THEN I had to do the GRE because I was thinking of applying to graduate schools in the U.S. The math was just the absolute worst—I thought I was going to die during the test, and I actually started crying in the testing-room which I’ve never done before. Luckily the test is in this super-dark room full of computers so no one noticed, but it was really upsetting. There’s a happy ending though: My friend Sophie did the same test later, and she got a pretty bad score in the math part (30% or something), and she still got accepted into loads of amazing colleges because the admission people recognized that it had absolutely nothing to do with her proposed topic (history). Her good scores on the other parts of the test made up for it. So don’t worry! Those tests seem scary, but if math isn’t necessary for your degree, they don’t care about that part.

  • Emily July 11th, 2014 4:51 PM

    Math is absolutely the horror of my life.
    The first time I began my downward spiral was 1st grade. We started the “1/2 (>,=,<) 1/4?" in a workbook and I got every single question wrong. I never learnt my multiplication tables, it just never stuck no matter how many flashcards my mom made me do. I cried every single night during elementary school when my mom or dad tried to help me with my math homework. My parents and my /math teachers/ got so! angry! and frustrated that I didn't understand "such basic concepts" that I stopped asking for help. In second and third grade I was sent regularly to see the counselor because they thought I was deciding consciously not to pay attention??(they bribed me with toys to pay attention, surprise, it didn't work). Actually #1, I was in so much emotional anguish from adults laying into me all the time about math, I just zoned the f out into a nicer place, and #2, I think they (teachers/parents/administration) recognized that I had a form of ADHD, but decided that would be too embarrassing to say so, so ignored it, and #3, none of it made any sense!! and would just "go in one ear and out the other", a phrase shouted at me by many frustrated educators.Some people in the comments are suggesting that it's merely people "not working hard enough". You have no idea- no god damned idea what you are talking about!!! I have been tutored by so many people, for so many hours! I have tried to study concepts, think I ace it, sit down to a test, blow through it with confidence, and get back a 35% and a "see me." Maths like a Waldo-less 'Wheres Waldo.'

  • maddayk July 11th, 2014 10:48 PM

    Thank you for writing this. I completely identify with this whole thing and you have helped me realize I’m not as alone as I thought I was. It sure is one of the worst feelings getting back a test you tried SO hard on and studied for, with a bad grade on it. It’s heart breaking and just hjkafjkdal;! But thankfully I have realized that math is just not my thing! And I have other talents and interests that are as equally as valid as being a math wiz.

  • Berries July 22nd, 2014 7:49 AM

    I have struggled with math as well, although not as bad as you have – in highschool it was mostly due to bad teachers, because in the last year everyone managed to get around a 6/10, which is perfectly fine when you’re all not very gifted in that area. In college I took tons of extra classes because I didn’t understood it AT ALL, and I got great grades in the end. But I must say – never have I worked that hard for something. And that gave me a lot of confidence.

    So yeah my struggles have been less intense than yours but I do relate to it on other levels. For example – memorizing without writing things down, focusing, getting started, being organized, falling asleep, being blunt.

  • tortu12 July 23rd, 2014 3:53 AM

    Interesting article! I’ve always seen myself as, like, half-good at math. As in, I’m in advanced classes, but I always feel like I have to work harder than everyone else. When I do math problems it feels like I am swimming through honey – I get the problems right eventually, it just takes so much time and effort to get to that point.

    I think part of what holds me back/slows me down is that I need to know WHY everything works the way it does – my friend is a “math whiz,” but she can’t help me with homework because she just shows me how to do a problem, and doesn’t understand my need to go any deeper than that. It’s because I fear running into a similar problem later and not being able to tackle it because I haven’t memorized all the rules yet. I like that I am persistent, but math doesn’t give me the same reward for that trait as, say, learning to play a song or reading a challenging book does.