Riding the Mathematics Short Bus

I am profoundly mathtarded.

I admit that I have a severe handicap in this area.

I came to terms with this in 4th grade, when Mrs. Murdoch made us do rote-verbal multiplication tables in front of the class. Utilizing a game that involved walking across laminated construction paper footprints that read “6 x 6” “7×6” “8×6” etc., one would advance through the footprint path of the specified number (in this case “6”) if you made it from 1 – 12 without error in a time limited session. If you succeeded, you received a strawberry candy and a sticker by your name on the chart. If you didn’t, you had to repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. When months started to go by, and I was the last person stuck on “7 times tables” and everyone else was finished, I knew that all hope was lost, forever.

I managed to graduate high school with a 87% average in Math 12. Real math. Academic math. I’m not sure how this actually happened, because I did not retain an iota of anything we learned from grade 8 through grade 12 besides a joke about ancient Greeks smoking some good ganja and saying “*toke* Mmmm! High pot in use! Let’s call this “HYPOTENUSE!” Even more bizarrely, I have a post-secondary diploma in Programming & Analysis. Again, not a single smidgen of what I apparently knew how to do has been retained in my Swiss-cheese brain (not that anyone needs a DOS whiz these days.)

I have never been good at anything that involved numbers and abstraction. I panic when I see long strings of numbers joined together, and start to break out in a cold sweat/hives/ulcers when I start seeing the poor, innocent alphabet getting mixed up in equations. I have long avoided going back to finish off a degree in a field I am keenly interested in, as there is a single complicated stats math course that makes me crap my pants when I read the description of it in the course catalog. The longer I have been away from formal education, the worse my fear becomes.

This isn’t to say that nobody has ever tried to help me understand math. Quite the opposite.  My father, who is an engineer and was blessed with a brain that processes abstract concepts, really gave it a good go. Year after year, night after night, he would patiently refrain from strangling me as I sobbed and swore at my high school math assignments. He would explain to me, demonstrate, revise. I would cry, become confused, and give up.

I am now the mother of two little girls. My oldest daughter is showing early signs of being very good at artsy creative pursuits: drawing, music, story-telling, dreaming. She is whip-sharp when it comes to vocabulary, language and communication. Numbers are of little to no interest to her, and even making her count is a struggle. The abstract mechanics of arithmetic are already proving to be frustrating to her. Conversely, my younger daughter is very quiet, introverted, focused, and logical. She is the type of child that will sit on the floor and carefully disassemble something complex, and then re-assemble it. She has no patience for the drama and long-winded yapping that her sister, my husband and I engage in. She already counts and has applied math skills beyond that of her older sister. Maybe she will be the lucky one who doesn’t fall into the anti-math vortex, and break the cycle.

I am trying not to pass my math anxiety on to my eldest daughter. I don’t let on that I think numbers make the baby Jesus cry. We are currently taking a parent-child “math is fun” course together once a week, in order to have fun and games built into the early learning process. The first session involved weights, measures, quantification etc. This is fine, in theory. I have no problem with this realm of math and science. It is something you can tangibly see, and it is concrete. Yet, there was a stumbling block on my end, even at a kindergarten level course. Within 15 minutes of the first session, I was ready to pack up and call it a day. I felt angry and annoyed. How can math, geared for pre-schoolers be pissing off a 30-something woman?

You see, I’m from the generation that was taught a mish mash of both Imperial and Metric.

We learned temperatures in centigrade.

We measured distance in mm, cm, m and km.

Yet, we learned to weigh things in pounds.

Measured food with teaspoons and cups.

Gave our height in feet and inches.

Never have I considered how many kilograms I weigh, nor how many mls the liquid I was pouring would be, nor how many centimetres tall I was. I have a hard time conceptualizing fractional numbers, because decimals and base 1o operations were beat into our heads early on. 31/167 means NOTHING to me.

So, there we were last week, squished shoulder to shoulder at the dwarf sized tables in the school library. The facilitator said to the herd of over-zealous mommies that actually go to math enhancement parent & tot programming: “Please ensure you do NOT do this exercise in pounds or inches, parents. Only find the metric weights and measures when you are working with your child. Please have your child guess how many kilos they are, and how many cm tall they are, and then you take a guess. Then, head over to the scale and measuring tape, and find out.”

Panic.

I had NO clue how many kilos my daughter was, and while I knew that she was 3 ft 6″, my mind started racing trying to convert the Imperial into metric. Upon stepping on the scale, it pronounced my daughter to be 16.8 kg. What the hell is that crap? Frantically, I try to figure out whether I need to double the weight, or multiply it by 2.5. Other parents in the room seemed to be in a similar boat, commenting “Well, McMykenzilyn…I don’t actually know what that means. I’ll have to convert that when we get home!” The poor little tykes just stared at us, confused by the whole process, and the uncomfortable *wink, nudge, Idontgetthisshit* being exchanged by their mothers. The facilitator just looked disgusted.

This transitional dichotomy has proven to be ugly for those of us who got caught in the middle of a curriculum change, and who fell between the math cracks. This may not sound like a big deal to math-y types, but to people like me who are not? It is hellish and defeating.

I want my daughters to “get it” when they pick up a pencil and work through their math books. I don’t want them to fear making mistakes when working through equations. I want to be a better role model in this area, truly. In my ongoing effort to do so, I have registered for a self-paced online refresher math course through a large university. I am carefully working through basic concepts. I have started at the 7th grade level, and I’m going slowly this time – reviewing and practicing. Reviewing and practicing. When I hit a concept that is still vaguely unclear, I find other resources on the internet that help explain it.

I’ll be damned if the dim little lightbulb in my head hasn’t started to light up! Concepts that have eluded me for two decades are actually snapping into place, with clarity. Whether it is because I’m not being rushed, or because my brain is more mature, or even because there are so many resources now that can explain concepts to the illogical people like me – I’m getting it this time!

It is, in a word, liberating.

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