Mathochism: Another brick in the wall

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

It was deja vu all over again.

The Algebra professor was very grim as he prepared to hand back the newest test Monday night.

“Many students did not do well on this test,” he said dourly. “And many of you did not turn in your homework. This is unacceptable.”

He went on to tell us that the Chapter 3 test was probably the most difficult of the entire course, because of the word problems. We are allowed to drop one exam grade this term, and he predicted this would be the one for most of the class.

I must confess I was perplexed; it did not feel like a tough test, not at all, in spite of the dreaded word problems. And I had done my homework. All of it. Still, I felt some fear as he began handing out the tests. He called my name, and I went up to get my Scantron.

Then the miracle happened. He gave me a rare smile, and said “very good.”

I picked up the exam and turned it over.

100 percent. Yes. Yes. Yeesssss!! Beaming, I went back to my desk. The next 30 minutes felt glowy and rosy, in spite of the professor, who was clearly in a major snit.

One student (and possibly one of the test offenders) slunk out shortly after the lecture. Normally, the dour professor would ignore that, but not this time.

“I am marking you absent!” he yelled at the young man’s retreating back before grumpily returning to the board.

In this newest chapter, we are continuing with linear equations with two variables, only we are not working as much with graphs. (Woohoo!) I’m not finding any of the material difficult, but it’s still a new technique, or at least one I don’t remember learning, so I needed a little time to absorb it.

That is why I hesitated when I came across an equation that included fractions. I knew I knew how to do it, but the fractions threw me off a bit. I just needed to focus harder, and I was having trouble doing so. I was also tired — it had been kind of a long day.

Unfortunately, the dour professor decided to check on my work just then.
He had never taken an interest before, but I guess I was on his radar as 100 percent woman, and therefore clearly brilliant. I fear I disappointed him greatly by not zipping through the problem.

This led to the second grumpy rant of the evening.

“This is basic,” he said as he showed us what I had finally accomplished while he was sighing over other classmates who were also dealing with temporary brain freeze. “You should know this!”

This segued into a dire warning about the final.

“Even if you get 100 percent on every one of my exams, you will not pass the class if you get a D on the final! This final is given by the math department! If you don’t do well, you cannot take the next class!”

Okeydokey! Why anyone with an A average in the class who has also done all the homework, understands all the concepts and read the TRL textbook from cover to cover should then tank the final is a mystery to me. But apparently it can happen!

When I told my husband about the dour professor’s tirades later that evening, he asked whether, as an adult and a conscientious student, I found that offensive.

Well, I guess I sort of did. But all that ran through my mind as the dour professor cawed was a line from Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)”. No, not “we don’t need no education.” It was a line right at the end, a spoken one: “If you don’t eat your meat, how can you have any pudding? How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?”

Please don’t worry, my dour Doctor of mathematics. I plan to eat all of algebra. And I will more than deserve my pudding.

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


  • I had a similar experience when taking algebra this last spring. The professor was handing back the tests, and with much disappointment announced that the class average was something like 63 percent (!!!!). So of course I freak out, and then peek at my test to see the wonderful number 97 written on top of the page. Whew! (I later found out that the second-highest score on the test was a 73! And I really didn’t think it was a tricky test, nor did I feel I went above and beyond when studying for it — I did all the homework and spent more time on the problems that confused me.)

    Your teacher’s tirades also remind me of a music history class I took way back in the ’90s, the first time I was in college. The teacher was handing back our first papers, and just laying into us about how we need to know basic grammar and punctuation at this point. He actually gave a mini-lecture on remedial writing. Really condescending. Then after class was dismissed, he asked me and another girl to stay behind, and then started heaping praises upon both of us for our fine literacy skills, thanking us for our abilities to string words together.

  • Yeah, it’s weird, right? And I really liked this teacher, even though he was grumpy. He taught me a lot, and was very thorough and helpful, and tested very fairly. Too bad he isn’t teaching calculus this fall.

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