Mathochism: Accentuate the negative

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

I was trying to be positive without being cocky. Hubris has never been my friend, whether on a job interview, date or a standardized test.

Still, it was rather disappointing to get back my first math test in 19 years, only to find I had gotten four questions wrong. Since there were 20 questions, each worth five points, that meant I got an 80. A low B.

Back when I was a math under-achiever, this would have been just fine. Now, it’s unacceptable. It’s particularly unacceptable since I really knew the material, and had practiced it over and over, and agonized over it over and over.

I’m sure, once I look at the Chapter 1 test, that I will find I made some silly mistakes with my arithmetic. The dapper professor assured me I could look at the test next Tuesday.

Of course, I will have not just one test to look at on Tuesday, but two.

Getting a less-than-perfect result on a test just an hour before taking another test isn’t exactly encouraging. It makes you less confident in your abilities. On the other hand, it also makes you more careful.

We were given an hour and a half to take the Chapter 2 test, and this time, I used it all. I worked through every question, once again solving the quicker ones first, then going back to the slower ones. Once I was done, I went over every question very carefully.

I caught at least two mistakes; hopefully that will improve the odds of getting at least a B on this test.

This test covered negative integers; some part of my dormant math brain actually remembered how number lines and absolute values worked. I also remembered that the product of two negatives is a positive.

Naturally, there were a few holes in my memory: I had forgotten that, for example, -12 -13 is not 1, but -25. -12 + 13 is 1. The dapper professor put in very practical terms: if someone borrows $12 from you, then borrows $13, how much money do they owe you?

Obviously, the mooch owes you $25.

“Think of it as money,” the dapper professor urged us. “Then it is very clear. Once it becomes abstract, people get confused.”

I kept this rule in mind all last week as I studied negative integers, and what happens when you add, subtract, multiply and divide them. I think I have it down, as long as I don’t rush the process.

Not seeing everything in a negative light is a lot more challenging. The college’s dwindling fortunes may mean I cannot take Algebra this fall. Due to certain requirements, I cannot register for the class until next week, and then only once the dapper professor signs off on me. I’m not worried that he will refuse; I do worry that the only Algebra section left at that time will be the one at 8 a.m.

Algebra I was awful enough the first time around — what will it be like when I am barely awake?

Sigh. Perhaps I should just remember the rule for the double negative — when you get two minuses in a row, they always turn into a positive.

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


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