Write Again … My Manifold Math Misery

Published 12:11 am Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Trust me, the epiphany I had regarding my intelligence didn’t just come to me. Hardly. I recognized — admitted to myself — a long time ago that I wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree.

Perhaps, probably, I accepted the reality of my less than soaring intellect when I first met algebra.

Algebra? Yep. You know, a2 – b2 = …

My initial encounter with my to-be nemesis came in the ninth grade. Oh, I managed to stay up with, stay tuned, for almost the entire length of my first day in the class.

No, that’s probably a “stretch.” I was lost about midway through that first class.

So, the remainder of the year was one of algebra anguish. I left that class on a daily basis — in my mind — and usually stayed gone that entire period.

Guess what I did the summer following that school year. You got it. I went to summer school and took algebra I. A logical next step, it seemed.

School begins again, I’m a year older, and I’m enrolled in algebra II.

Well, only a week or so into the new school year it was decided that the wiser course of action was for me to take algebra I again. So I did. My teacher, a very nice person whom I had known for years, really helped me cope. I made it through the year with a passing grade.

This time, however, I wised up. I think my parents had much to do with arranging for me to take algebra II in summer school. I did … and I passed. (However, I don’t think I really learned a whole lot.) Then, only geometry loomed on the horizon. That’s a tale for another time.

To continue. I’m signed up for algebra the first semester I’m at Wake Forest. Not good. You’re familiar with drop-add, I’m sure.

Okay, fast forward some three years later. I’m fresh out of Uncle Sam’s army, and really revved up to go after that degree.

Guess what one of my classes was my first quarter at East Carolina College. You got it. Algebra.

After much angst, to include breaking out in a sweat, skin itching terribly while in class, my math demon was back.

You’re ahead of me now, I’m sure. Yes, it was drop-add time again. Deja vu all over again, as Yogi might say.

And then, providentially, I ran into a friend of my youth, who was also a veteran, and who was at ECC and seemingly doing well.

So, I told him my story. He said he could relate, and that’s why he became an education major. He told me the department (later a school and then a college) wanted men in its program. You see, even though there was math to be taken, algebra was not a requirement. Thank you, Lord!

Being a bit older than almost all of the students (most of whom were young women), and really, really trying to be a good student, I made it through.

However, one math course I had to take required three shots at it, the last in what they called the evening college. Outcome good.

Finally, the last math hurdle seemed almost insurmountable. Dr. Doug Jones, the department head, later the first Dean of the School of Education, came to my rescue. He allowed me to substitute a modern math graduate course for the one that was required. (The teacher of that required course was intimidating, unyielding, and came right out and told us that unless we had taken this, this, and this, out of thus and such textbooks our chances of passing were minimal. Dismal.)

Dr. Jones taught that modern math course that summer, and, surprising to me, I did rather well.

In his opening remarks he said, “I know many of you are scared of math (almost all in the class were female teachers), but let me promise you that though we may not all learn at the same rate, nor will we all learn the same amount, we all will learn  something. So relax.”

For three hours each morning for two weeks I enjoyed math.

One serendipity from that experience is that I always tried to provide that kind of approach to and support for my students. I had genuine empathy for those who struggled.

During my time in the vineyards of education I taught health and physical education, middle school language arts and social studies, and high school English.

Even as an assistant principal, and for a number of years as a program administrator in the central office, I tried not to forget how my math struggles had affected me.

Well, that’s about it.

Oh. I still don’t know what a2 – b2 is.

Don’t ask. Don’t care.