Last week, I decided to start taking math classes through a free online learning course. You ever make a decision as an adult that you know your teenage self would have laughed at you for? Yeah.
I can hardly over-estimate the agonies math caused me in high school. I failed my math classes three years in a row, to the point that my guidance counselor wrote me off as not expected to graduate. I did graduate, and on time, but technically I was never promoted to the 12th grade, which created a lot of amusing confusion for my teachers.
My problems in math (and to a slightly lesser degree, science) had less to do with the subject itself and more to do with the fact that I just wasn’t very good at being a student. I’d gone to Christian schools from kindergarten to eighth grade, where I made straight A’s and B’s with essentially zero effort, but when I transferred to a public high school in 9th grade I discovered that I was about two years behind grade level in every subject. Thanks to the paltriness of my education, I had never developed the kind of study habits that might have helped me get caught up, and both my teachers and parents were oblivious to what was happening, so no one made any accommodation for me. This, plus the fact that I was dealing with serious problems at home that left me little energy to worry about school, insured that I was always an indifferent student, at least until my senior year when I realized that I was in danger of not getting into college.
The thing that brings me back to math at the age of 32 is the memory of those few fleeting moments when something in my math or science classes came clear to me. Like finding cubed roots in algebra. For some reason, I absolutely loved solving cubed root problems. It was like a puzzle or a game, non-intuitive to my whole left-brained approach to life but still decipherable. I could have worked out cubed roots for hours. I had a similar experience when I went to my remedial science teacher in ninth grade for after school tutoring. One of the many things I was expected to know, but hadn’t learned in middle school, was the structure of an atom. I couldn’t follow along in class, but when it was explained to me one on one something clicked, and all of a sudden I was fascinated. It was like glimpsing the the deep human truth alluded to between the metaphors and images in a poem. I had a strong interest in science when I was in the lower grades, and if not for the fact that the science curriculum at my Christian school mostly involved lectures on why believing in evolution was a sin, I think I would have wanted to study it seriously when I got older. But trying to get to a point in my understanding of elementary concepts that would enable me to keep up with my class was like standing on a pier and watching a ship sail out to sea. I jumped into the water and tried to swim toward the boat, but I was alone in deep water and eventually I just sank.
In the same way that lots of people feel, vaguely, that it might be nice to devote some of their spare time to learning a foreign language as a hobby, I’ve spent years thinking that maybe I should go back to math and see if I could make anything of it, now that the intolerable pressure of being a teenager and a student is behind me. I hoped that, maybe, I could tap back into those moments where everything came clear and build on them. I was curious about deconstructing my learning process. I know that I never do well in a classroom environment where all I can do is sit and listen; even in subjects that interested me deeply, like English, I tended to shut the teacher out and work on my own while the teacher talked. So much of how I learn is affected by the way I relate to the power dynamic in a teacher-student relationship. I think that at some point in my life I equated any attempt by an adult to explain something to me as a kind of reproach. Considering that teachers at my Christian school punished academic missteps in the same way they punished rule infractions, this probably isn’t too surprising. But it made me wonder if tackling the world of math and science without the anxiety of having a teacher looking over my shoulder would be a different experience from what I remembered in school.
At this point, I’m about a week into the math curriculum offered by Khan Academy online. I did a few lessons in geometry before switching to pre-algebra. My basic arithmetic skills are very strong—I used to win prizes for being able to add long columns of numbers in my head, which argues against a math related learning disorder—but pre-algebra is where I remember math starting to become something other than effortless. It took me about four days to clear 93% of the pre-algebra lessons offered on the website. For the last three days, though, I’ve been stuck on the last three or four lessons. The way the website works is that you can watch instructional videos or see examples of solved problems before attempting to answer five questions correctly in a practice section. For the most part, I’ve found that I learn best by looking over the examples, figuring out how the results were arrived at, and applying that lesson to new problems. Sometimes, though, I have to watch the videos, and that’s when the recalcitrant 13 year old in me throws back her head and howls.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the videos. They’re methodical, because, I am discovering, math has to be methodical. I, however, am desperately impatient. I don’t want to memorize the damned formulas—I want to do it all in my head. I honestly think my biggest problem is that I’m intelligent. I’m accustomed to being able to make intuitive leaps by discerning patterns, jumping from point A to point Z in a single bound. I’ve always taken my ability to do that for granted. What I think I am learning, however, is that the reason I have always demonstrated clear and obvious talent in anything related to language is because my voracious reading habits as a kid gave me a huge foundation of knowledge to draw on that enabled me to make intuitive leaps. I don’t have that foundation in math yet. I am still capable of making some leaps, and that’s fantastically rewarding, but if I want to be truly good at this, I’m going to have to slow down and acquire basic principles.
What is most interesting about this is that it reveals something uncomfortable but highly relevant to my life as a whole. I don’t really have middle gears; I never have. I am much better—more decisive, more rational and clearer-thinking—in the midst of a crisis than I am in day to day life. I can survive extreme circumstances much more easily than I can maintain a contented stability. Putting in a little work every day to achieve a long term goal hasn’t ever really been the way I approached life. This isn’t my fault, or something that I chose. My early life was unstable, the adults around me unstable and unpredictable. When bad things happen to you a lot as a kid, you find yourself in the uncontrollable grip of extreme emotions, and the only relief you can get from them is retreat into a distant, dissociated state of denial. Everything that I’m good at, I learned how to do because I was driven to it out of dire need for relief or escape. In just one area of my life—writing—the two things overlapped. I got relief by expressing myself in the written word, and writing came to me easily enough that I did it consistently, not because I had a good work ethic, but because it was an available escape that I could make use of as frequently as necessary. This is why I’ve never had writer’s block; in the depths of my worst depression, or the height of my greatest anxiety, I’ve continued to produce words on paper. They aren’t always the words I wished I was writing, but at least writing was happening.
My fantasy about my new course of math study is that I will finally manage to wrap my head around how rates are calculated in word problems, finish the pre-algebra curriculum, and work through the rest of the subjects offered by the Khan Academy website. As my math foundation gets stronger, I want to move on to science and possibly computer programming. I’ve always had a poet’s interest in physics; I’d like to be able to understand a little of the popular science books I sometimes read for fun. I have no idea if I’ll actually stick with it that long, but right now, for the first time in my life, math is fun. Frustrating, infuriating, fun, like when I play Peggle against the computer on the most difficult level. I wish I could go back and tell teenage me about this. I don’t think she’d be very impressed, because she wasn’t impressed by much, but I think she’d be amused. And maybe she would have decided to actually do her geometry homework occasionally.