Mathochism: I’m a woman

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

Things are finally getting a bit more interesting in Algebra II.

I actually dreaded going to class last night, thinking I would rather just curl up on the couch and watch “How I Met Your Mother.” I just couldn’t face more rehashed Algebra I, mixed in with the brofessor’s “life lessons” on earth-shaking topics like card counting.

(The above is also why I didn’t update Mathochism last week. I had nothing to say, and too much to complain about.)

But I’m glad I went, since he finally introduced a new concept: Functions. As in f[x] = 2x + 4.

I vaguely remember functions from my math phobia days. Very, very vaguely. I clearly didn’t pay attention. I’m upset that I didn’t pay attention. But it makes sense, since math back then was something to be suffered through, not something to be understood.

I think I am grasping the idea of functions this time around, and a big part of that is determination to overcome my math phobia. I wish I could say that for my classmates.

Right before break, one woman in the first row — let’s call her Anna — questioned why we were learning functions in the first place. The brofessor explained that functions are the basis for much advanced math, and that we would use them a lot in pre-calculus and calculus.

“So I wouldn’t call them silly,” he told her.

Anna shrugged. “I’m a woman,” she said.

I wasn’t the only one who reacted negatively to Anna’s comment. The woman next to me (also in the front row) said “Heey…” at around the same time I did. I could have gone off on Anna then, telling her her attitude is what keeps women out of careers in engineering and science, and just feeds into patriarchal bullshit about the abilities of women.

But I decided not to. She doesn’t seem the type to take well to lecturing. For that matter, I don’t take well to lecturing. However, I did my best to answer as many questions correctly as I could in the second half of class. Because, you know, I’m a woman.

The brofessor, wisely, didn’t agree with her. He likely wouldn’t have, considering I have had years to perfect my Glare of Death, also known as the Evil Eye. I used the Evil Eye on him last week, when he started making comments about journalism and the media. I hope he learned a life lesson. Let’s stick to the math, mmm’kay?

I have no compunction about using the evil eye on Anna, either. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand where she’s coming from. I bought that bullshit myself, for years. Though I never wanted to admit that part of it was my own internalized sexism, it was. I was afraid to work hard at my math, and because I was a girl, I was not encouraged to do so. It was not an overt thing; it was just one of those “A.K. is clearly better suited for the female-friendly humanities.” I was written off in a way I didn’t see happening to my male classmates.

Nor was I encouraged to go into political science. I did poorly in that class in ninth grade, and when I asked for help, I didn’t get tutoring or extra credit. Rather, the counselor gave me a long lecture about “understanding your limits.”

It’s been 25 years, but I have still not forgiven that counselor for doing that. She didn’t know me. (Yes, it was a woman. Women are sexist too.) She had no business telling me to limit myself. The only way to push yourself to excellence is to ignore limits; they will present themselves in time, and it’s surprising how much they can stretch if you push hard enough.

In “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe wrote about Chuck Yeager’s attempts to break the sound barrier. At the time, scientists believed it was impossible, that it was like an impenetrable wall. Yeager wasn’t a scientist. He didn’t know about this impenetrable wall, and wouldn’t have believed in it anyway.

He broke the sound barrier.

I will break my math barrier. And yes, I’m a woman.

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

• Quercki

I’m glad you are taking a second pass at math and writing about it. I really like this story, too.

• akwhitney

Thanks for your support, Quercki! I’m still wrapping my mind around functions, but hope to nail them down eventually.

• Every time in class, my psych professor used to ask us, “As women, what do you think of _____________ (insert name of misogynist psychologist) and his theories?”. I started saying everything as, “As a woman I think it’s really hot today”, “As a woman I think I should have a black coffee instead of my mocha”. After about two eons he saw what I was trying to do.

Though this – Let’s Call Her Anna – person doesn’t seem like a very bright WOMAN, you could try that on her.