Mathochism: Getting fractious

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

Last night, I committed my first act of math rebellion.

We’ve been studying fractions for the past two weeks, and last night, we took the Chapter 3 test. Having learned my lesson from that first test, I once again took my time with each problem, and went over everything once I was done. I caught at least one mistake, and hope that will make the difference.

But here is where I rebelled: at least one test question called for finding the missing number (numerator or denominator) in a set of fractions.

Example: 65/91 = ?/7.

Now, my primordial math brain actually remembered how to solve this kind of problem. You cross-multiply and then divide, i.e, 65 * 7/91. The answer is 5.

I have used this formula for years when calculating percentages and nutritional values, and it has served me well. So, when the dapper professor pooh-poohed it and suggested a weird alternative, I rebelled.

Mind you, I have great respect for this professor’s mad math skillz and his teaching ability. But I am loath to give up a technique I truly understand.

Last night, when I came upon this kind of problem on the test, I went with my comfort zone. I only hope I will not regret it later.

This mild rebellion, of course, doesn’t exactly make me the class outlaw. I am rather amazed by the casual attitude displayed by many of the students. Some haven’t bothered to show up for several tests. (The dapper professor confronted one. “I had to work,” the dude said. Mmmkay. Are your hands broken? Can you not send an explanatory e-mail?)

Others can’t be bothered to come to class and, once there, be prepared to print out their homework beforehand.

I realize community colleges, being open to everyone, don’t exactly attract scholars of the same kind of caliber as Harvard. However, we are all paying for these classes (and way more for books; I was appalled when my pre-algebra text cost $160 and tuition $60), and it seems like such a waste.

I also suspect, cynically, that similar un-committed jerks are hogging up the spaces in Algebra I, forcing more dedicated students like me to stress over not being able to register.

There are always jerks in every class, of course, whether you’re in a high-falutin’ Ivy League or a vocational school.

I knew plenty of jerks in the bad old math days. For example, there always seemed to be that one loud-mouth who couldn’t help blurting out the answer, even if that answer was wrong. I have one in this class, and am only comforted that he seems to annoy the dapper professor as much as he annoys me.

Then, there is whiny befuddled girl, who can’t seem to get it, even after multiple explanations, and keeps saying: “But whyyyy? I don’t understaaand!”

Now, I was equally befuddled back in the bad old math days, but way too shy to whine about it. I just kept being befuddled, and scraped through — which is why I am here.

There is something very freeing about taking such a class in later life. The last time I took pre-algebra was in middle school. Middle school is a pit of despair, and Matt Groening was quite right when he described a roaming pack of 12-year-old girls as the cruelest beings in the universe.

Well, no — thinking harder, I must disagree with Mr. Groening. 12-year-olds of both genders are the cruelest creatures in the universe. My biggest emotional scars at that age were inflicted by boys. For three years, I was emotionally abused by two — Marco and Gabriel. The merciless scheduling gods, moreover, ensured they were in my math classes in sixth through eighth grade.

So you see, I had even more incentive to keep my head down and be silent befuddled girl.

Neither Marco nor Gabriel were the loud-mouth dude, but a pal of theirs was. But the sixth grade teacher, unlike my current professor, was not annoyed by him at all, treating him like a prize.

I wonder how I would have done had these fellows not been in my classes. Would math have been less painful?

While covering the education beat for the Press-Telegram in the late ’90s, I did a story on a middle school in the Long Beach school district. Administrators had decided, as an experiment, to make classes single-sex. Girls and boys would still mingle in hallways and at lunch, but be separated otherwise.

The decision was based on a number of studies which showed that girls do better academically in single-sex classrooms, since boys tend to dominate discussion and divert the teacher’s attention. This was particularly the case in math and science classes.

Conversely, boys did worse in single-gender classes, since girls seem to have a civilizing influence on them.

I don’t know what to think about all of this. Certainly my life would have been easier had Marco and Gabriel not existed. But even in a single-sex environment, it is no fun being a 12-year-old girl.

As for that whole “civilizing influence” thing, I call bullshit. Apart from the usual offensive assumption that women must be the ones to “tame” men, the teacher is the one who really sets the tone in a classroom. A good teacher can handle any class, regardless of gender, and a good teacher encourages all students to do well.

But I am still very happy to no longer be 12 years old.

In fact, my 20th high school reunion was earlier this year. I contemplated, briefly, going and confronting Marco and Gabriel in their paunchy, balding, middle-aged glory.

“You made my life hell, and harmed my math prospects!” I would have said, Terminator-style, before demolishing them in some ugly fashion.

But it feels better to just do it over, and do it well, now.

Overcoming math is the best revenge.

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


One comment

  • This was my experience returning to school. And perhaps you will (or already have) experienced your academic colleagues weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, when asked to write anything longer that a single paragraph.