Mathochism: Pass/Fail

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 didn’t get 100 percent on the fractions test.

I got a 90.

This is not a bad thing. I imagine I made a mistake or two in the simplest arithmetic; I do get the technique. Besides, with this latest score, I am averaging 90 percent. That still qualifies as an A. And an A, for a math phobic, is as big a deal as getting an A as a chemistry phobic.

I remember how proud I was when I got that long-ago A in chemistry, especially coming a year after I failed the subject (dealing a death blow to my high school GPA). And I remember how proud my amazing chemistry teacher was when he announced grades in class, and said I had an A:

“As solid as the Rock of Gibraltar,” he added, nodding approvingly at me.

I have since come to question the solidity of the Rock of Gibraltar, though I still appreciate that teacher’s confidence in me.

But this 90 percent is not as solid, as, say, a 95 percent.

Yet none of it matters anyhow, since this class is only offered pass/fail.

Dammit, dammit, dammit.

Algebra I will be graded, of course. But why do I care at all? I am not planning to get another degree. Or at least, if I ever do go for that PhD, it certainly won’t be in math.

It would just be nice to see a transcript with a math class on it that also had an A on it. I will just have to keep working on it.

I have another test tonight. This one is on decimals. Again, not something my reptile math brain completely forgot. I am just going to have to go slow, and use plenty of scratch paper.

This, by the way, is the dapper professor’s advice.

“Math is not like English,” he said. “You can’t just memorize things. You have to sit down with a piece of paper and figure it out.”

Well, memorizing techniques — and being shown how to best solve a problem — helps figure it out. But I know what he means. Math is far less capricious than English, at least at its simpler levels.

I found out what the dapper professor’s day job is, by the way. He is an engineer. What kind, I do not know, and would not share here anyway.

I am sorry being a math teacher is not his life’s work, because he is damn good at it. I hate that old saw about “those who can’t do, teach.” A great teacher is a great commodity, and knowing how to teach is a great art.

A bad teacher doesn’t matter when you already have talent for something. The worst they can do is slow you down. But having a bad teacher in a subject that doesn’t come easily — well, it leads to somewhat bitter blogs like these.

I suppose that insulting saying applies to those bad teachers, the many what-have-yous who went into teaching because they failed at what they really wanted to do. But is very unfair to those who really have the gift, like this man.

He talked about the art of teaching in class, too. He mentioned his brilliant friend, and implied this friend’s brilliance surpasses his own. (The dapper professor, if I haven’t made it clear before, has a bit of the peacock in him. Luckily, his love of math and his need to teach overshadow that.)

“He understands, but he can’t explain it to others,” he told us.

And that is what a teacher does. Explains it to others.

The dapper professor is teaching pre-algebra again this fall. We asked him why he isn’t teaching Algebra I. His answer was evasive; I suspect department politics and budget vagaries are involved.

He is teaching the subject in the Spring. Sadly, I can’t wait that long. I’ll just have to hope that this next teacher is an artful mathematician as well.

The stakes are higher now. It’s no longer just about pass/fail.

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


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