Mathochism: Missing the point

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

For some reason, I deviated from procedure that night.

Maybe it was because it was the last chapter test. Maybe it was because I found out the class is not pass/fail, after all, and I am thisclose to getting my first A ever in math. Maybe I should have had that Peach Snapple instead of the coffee that kept me up all night later.

But there I was, 20 minutes from the end-of-test deadline, and still on number 18. I had never been this slow before. Then again, this was my first foray into letters, not numbers, in 20 years.

Then I got to number 19, which was a straightforward exercise in substitution, calculating the number of students who could fit in a classroom. There were no letters, no negatives, no exponents to speak of. I followed the formula to the letter. But my answer was nowhere near my five options.

15 minutes left. I went to question 20, and had no problem with that. I went back to 19.

Why can’t I get it? Why CAN’T I GET IT? WHY?

Time had run out. So much for going back over the test like I always do. I just picked the number that felt right, for some reason: 80. I handed my Scantron to the dapper professor.

I packed up my things, walked across campus, got into my car, drove home.

My math confidence shattered as I drove home, block by block. What had just happened? Why was I back in this bad math place, where everything was muddy, not clear?

I got home, and ranted about it to my husband, who tried to comfort me. I pulled out the test (this last time, we were allowed to keep it to study for the final). I went through the problem, and this time, I used a calculator.

And I discovered my mistake. It wasn’t my method, it wasn’t that I DIDN’T GET IT. No, it was a question of a misplaced decimal point. And here was the irony: somehow, I had managed to pick the right answer after all. It WAS 80.

If my math confidence hadn’t already been restored, it would have been by my husband’s next remark.

“Anyone can make an arithmetic mistake, even a professional mathematician. A mistake with a decimal point can mean the difference between a missile hitting its target or not.”

Obviously, I hope some high-faluting government mathematician doesn’t make that kind of error while, say, deploying Star Wars. But I, for one, won’t judge that mathematician. I know what it’s like to miss the point, and that doesn’t mean either of us sucks at math.

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

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