Mathochism: Getting testy

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

The classroom didn’t smell like feet for once.

Or at least, I don’t think it did; I may have been too nervous to notice. As I sat waiting for my dapper professor to hand me the Chapter 1 exam, I twirled a number 2 pencil with sweaty fingers. I rearranged my eraser, my Scantron (I had bought three different kinds, just to make sure), my second pencil (in case of breakages) and my four pieces of scratch paper (wouldn’t want to run out).

Then it occurred to me.

“Oh my God. I haven’t taken one of these in 19 years.”

The woman in front of me turned around. I realized I had spoken aloud.

“I know what you mean.” She chuckled. “I haven’t done this in years either.”

As I waited, I realized I have no vivid memories of that last math test; I am only sure it was during the fall semester of my sophomore year in college. That was the semester I took Calculus. And failed Calculus.

It was also during that time (and I wish to go on the record to say it was the ONLY time, with ANYONE, EVER) that I used my womanly wiles on the professor. He was a little mouse of a man with thick glasses and a thin mustache. He was probably in his late 30s at the time, and department gossip said he was unmarried and living with his elderly mother.

My undergraduate alma mater is not exactly known for its reticent women, and it was clear this man was terrified of the female students most of the time. Therefore, I realized intimidation would likely backfire; sweetness and breathiness and helplessness were the way to go.

So, I hoisted the girls as high as possible and wore a low-cut sweater that would showcase them well. I spritzed on something floral and went to corner my prey.

Now, my goal was not to get my Calculus professor to give me some “extra credit” so I wouldn’t fail. I already knew I was going to fail, and had even taken the precaution of registering for the class credit/no credit at the beginning of the semester. (Such classes did not affect a student’s GPA. Remember, any illusions I had that I could be good at math had been gone for almost a decade.)

No, my worry was about what my dean would say. She didn’t hold with slackers, and expected even English majors who had no math ambitions to do their best. I dreaded the lecture she was bound to give me, and decided the only way to avoid it was to sweet-talk the professor into telling the dean that he was very, very sorry he had to fail me, that I had really, really tried my very best, but that I was really, really hopeless and should be allowed to take something else, like computer programming, to meet the college math requirement.

The cleavage, the perfume, the helplessness and the flattery worked perfectly. When my dean told me a few weeks later about the impassioned letter she had received from my Calculus professor, I had to use all my acting skill to keep a straight face.

Back to the present, though, I know there is no chance of any such scam working on my dapper Nigerian pre-algebra professor.

Quite apart from the fact that I am heavily invested in actually learning the stuff this time, this guy couldn’t be more different than my mousy Calc prof of yore. This guy seems happily married, and has young children. He even brought his six-year-old son to class on test night, and proudly announced the boy is already good at math. Working the wiles in front of a solemn-faced tot, who also happens to be the spitting image of his father, was out of the question.

Besides, the professor was already despondent on test night, and it had nothing to do with Michael Jackson. Just a minute into the test, he announced that, thanks to California’s budget crunch, my community college is not offering any night classes during the Winter 2010 term.

He only teaches night classes, since (not surprisingly, considering how badly community college instructors get paid) he also has a day job.

“I’m going to have to get unemployment,” he said grimly.

The Winter 2010 term runs between January and February. It is a precursor to the much longer spring term. Call me cynical, but I doubt the budget cuts will end by spring. I was hoping to take Algebra II that semester, but I realize now that I cannot count on anything. So much for indulging my mathochism.

Sitting with my test paper in front of me, however, I had no time to worry about the future. In fact, I was more annoyed by the distraction, since the despondent professor’s announcement produced a flurry of questions from classmates eager to put off the test as long as possible.

Wishing I had a remote with a mute button, I perused the test. There were 20 questions, each worth five points. There was nothing on there I hadn’t practiced over and over and over; in fact, some of the prime numbers were those I had just studied in the math lab.

Some vague memory of test strategy compelled me to answer the least time-consuming questions first. I left the longer equations and the GCF and LCM calculations for last.

We had an hour and a half to take the test. I was done in 50 minutes.

I don’t want to say definitely I did well. Hubris is not, and has never been, my friend. I just hope I did okay, because it would be a nice way to melt another part of my frozen math heart.

Either way, it will be a good learning experience — no cleavage required.

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

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