Mathochism: The introduction

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in high school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

I’ve never been good at math.

No, let me amend that. I’ve never tried to be good at math.
I’ve never tried to be good at math because I’ve always been good at languages, and with words, and I always knew I wanted to be a writer.

Those things all came easily.

Math didn’t. Math was hard.

Well, actually — I thought math was hard because I never applied myself, and pretty much wrote it off in sixth grade, and labeled myself a hopeless cause. For the last six years of my basic education, math became something to be suffered through. I barely passed algebra and actually flunked geometry and calculus.

I am not proud of these failures, though I did retake geometry and got a B. I never went back to calculus.

These math failures had repercussions. They really screwed up my GPA, my SATs, and, worst of all, killed the science geek in me. I loved astronomy, but never dared take it because of the math. I never dared take physics either.

My math failure also made chemistry really hard. Though I got an A in it my second time around (I failed it the same semester I failed geometry. It was not a good year), I remember my marvelous chemistry teacher, Mr. Lerch, asking me if I had taken algebra. I said yes. “You didn’t learn a damn thing,” he said. Still, under his encouragement I was soon using algebraic methods to work out chemical equations.

Looking back, I wonder why I was so quick to give up on math. I am normally pretty damn tenacious. Ask my father, and he will proudly tell you how I used to be the only one to ride up the steepest hill in our local park on my bicycle. Everyone else — kid or adult — would get off their bikes and push. Not me. It took me a while, but I always got there.

I guess it didn’t help that my parents — who themselves never enjoyed math — seemed okay with me giving up. It didn’t help that none of my girlfriends at the time seemed to enjoy math — though one is now an engineer and the other a computer programmer. It didn’t help that most of my math teachers didn’t seem to care — except my Algebra II teacher senior year, and by then it was too late. It didn’t help that girls in general weren’t expected to be good at math, and that I was apparently acting as expected — screw you, Larry Summers.

My math failure has always pained me, but until now, I have always repressed it and written it off. This is partly because I have spent the last decade and a half with journalists. Journalists tend to be math-challenged, and I am a proud journalist.

But the time for excuses is past. As of this week, I am enrolled in a pre-algebra class at my neighborhood community college. It is an eight week course, and it starts Tuesday. If everything goes well, I hope to go on to algebra this fall. Then algebra II, then trigonometry, then (eep) calculus.

Hopefully, California’s budget crisis won’t stop me.

Why did I decide to start with pre-algebra? Well, because that is when it all went horribly wrong. While I may have given up on math in sixth grade, my unwillingness to try really started hurting me in eighth grade, AKA pre-algebra. Not applying myself in pre-algebra messed up my prospects in algebra, and so on, and so on.

So there you have it — this is the beginning of my quest to see whether I really suck at math. This time, I have the advantage of not dealing with adolescent drama. My parents (particularly my mother), my husband and my friends are cheering me on. Larry Summers was fired for his sexist assumptions.

Can I do it? Or am I just a mathochist?

I guess we will have to wait and see.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.


  • Yeah! You go, girl!

  • I have to ‘fess up a bias here – I love mathematics and always have.

    Still, I believe everyone is capable of learning it if they are willing to take their time (and of course, school is very much built around everyone taking the same amount of time to reach a certain level or subject area – which is not helpful!). A good friend who spent years studying mathematics told me that sometimes a person’s success in learning mathematics is dependent upon finding a teacher who approaches it in the same way as she (or he) does.

    I wish you all the best in your new quest, and I hope that eventually you will be able to have as much fun with numbers as I do!

  • One thing i find with maths is that it really helps to have it in context. This is often lacking in schools, where the point often seems to be to learn an algorithm by heart. When they do try to make it seem to have real world application (which it does) they often come up with the most boring examples. It can be really hard to come up with good uses for some of the simpler maths, but it can be really worth it.
    I’m good at maths, but i hated it in high school because for the reasons above it was so boring. I now have a degree in it, and as i moved further along it got a lot better.
    So my advice to you it to look for cool applications. One i’ll mention, is that Pythagoras’s theorem, and a bit of algebra is all you need to understand a lot about special relativity.
    Good luck.

  • I’m a youthful math loather turned math appreciator too! My roommate is a math grad student, and so we do informal math lessons on the whiteboard in our apartment and pretty much just go from one thing that seems interesting to me to another thing that seems interesting. It’s a fun way to do it.

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