Mathochism: Isn’t it ironic?

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

The unthinkable has happened.

No, I haven’t gotten another newspaper job, though I hate the idea that such a thing might be unthinkable. This is actually even weirder.

I have, in four short months, gone from math phobe to math tutor. Not the paid kind, sadly, but in the past week I, professional befuddled girl, actually explained a few math concepts to my fellow math students.

It started in class last Wednesday. I was approached by one of my classmates — I’ll call her Consuelo. Consuelo is older than I am. I hesitate to guess how much older, but she cannot be younger than 40. I am not sure why she’s taking Algebra, but I suspect some kind of career re-education– I’ve seen her wearing nursing scrubs.

Anyway, Consuelo apparently noticed I didn’t fail the last test.
“You’re good at math!”
“Oh no.” I demurred. “I’ve just been studying very hard.”
Then she asked if we could study together. Sigh. I’ve never been the group study type. I like to figure stuff out on my own, and keep my own pace, and preferably do this while plugged into some music.

But I didn’t want to be stuck-up 100 percent lady either, and Consuelo isn’t an unprepared loudmouth in class, so we arranged to meet in the smelly math lab the next afternoon.

When I got to the SML slightly earlier than planned, it was packed. There was no place to sit at the big tables, and I feared Consuelo and I would not be able to study together. I finally found a seat in the back corner, at what was ostensibly a tutor table, though the tutor was nowhere to be seen. I asked the guy sitting there (he was an earnest fellow in a black yarmulke) if he minded sharing the table.

He said he didn’t, but that I should get rid of the tutor sign, lest people think I was she. I did, and settled down, keeping an eye out for Consuelo.

2 o’clock came and went, and I didn’t see her. I went on doing my homework, wishing I could plug myself into some music.

“Excuse me.”
It was my earnest table companion.
“I was wondering if you could help me? It looks like you’re taking much more advanced math than I am, and–”
“Not really. It’s high school algebra.”
“I’m taking pre-algebra.”
“Oh, okay.”

He showed me the problem he was working on. It was a fairly straightforward problem with mixed fractions. He showed me how he had solved it, and as far as I could see, he had done everything right. But the book’s answer was still different.

But his work was pretty messy, so I asked to see the original problem. When I got to see that, I knew instantly what he had done wrong. He’d left out a negative sign. I pointed that out, and added, wisely, that those negative signs would get him every time.

He was embarrassingly grateful, and packed up shortly after to go to class. The SML had emptied out a bit by then, and I finally found Consuelo at a table across the room. I moved over to sit with her, and found out she was not as far ahead on homework as I was. So thus began the second tutoring session, as I worked with her on point slope form and other graph stuff.

The problem with tutoring, of course, is that you’re not focusing on your own studies, so I didn’t get a lot done. And while Consuelo seems a very nice lady, I only have so many hours a day for math. That is why I was very happy to hear on Wednesday that she’d found a good tutor through the math lab, and will be studying with him from now on.

I may be less of a math phobe these days, but I am not yet ready to make the leap to math tutor.

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

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