Mathochism: Geometric anxiety

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 math begins again on Monday, and this time, I’m really dreading it.

This seems both silly and self-indulgent, since this is all for fun and by choice and I really don’t need to be there. But it’s also geometry, a class I hated (and failed) when I took it the first time 24 years ago. It’s a subject I hoped to avoid this time around, skipping blithely ahead to pre-calc after intermediate algebra. Wasn’t dealing with the Brofessor last semester punishment enough? But no. My college math department won’t let students move on to pre-calculus without plane geometry.

Cue the anxiety. Mastering those xs and ys was tough enough. Proving theorems that postulate whether a trapezoid’s remaining angle is 40 degrees feels torturous and impossible.

Though my math phobia started years before I took geometry, it reached its apex that year. Now, I’m not going to pretend I bear no responsibility for failing that first semester. I didn’t really do the work, I didn’t apply myself. I also had a lot of things on my mind. There was friend drama. A boy I liked was possibly off-limits because he was a year younger. I was cast in my first school play. My family was planning to move to another country at Christmas, which meant spending more than a few weekends flying there to look at houses and schools and all that stuff.

But even with my distraction and lack of enthusiasm, the teacher was a big part of that failure. She was not a trained teacher, per se. She was a retired registered nurse. My very fancy and expensive private school had hired her to teach geometry because English-speaking math teachers were apparently hard to find in Mexico City in the ’80s. So they made do.

Please understand I am not slamming her for being a retired nurse. I am willing to accept that a nurse could switch careers and become a brilliant math teacher, particularly if that had been his or her dream. Sadly, that was not the case with this woman. She should have stayed retired, because she was perpetually vague. Her explanations made no sense a lot of the time, and I quickly gave up on understanding what she was talking about.

My faith in her was tenuous from day one, but snapped completely the day I asked her a question, and she looked at me in a perplexed way and asked if I was in her class. I sat in the second row.

Maybe that’s why I failed? She forgot who I was, and figured I must not be in her class? But no. I deserved to fail. I made up for it the next year, when I had a much sharper teacher, and got Bs. But my GPA was screwed.

I don’t care about GPAs this time around, but I do care about wasting my time. And as much as I joke about being a “mathochist,” I don’t want to torture myself with triangles.

I also hate to leave things unfinished. I’ve committed to seeing this through to calculus, dammit, and I will. I may just squawk a lot louder about it this semester.

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



  • Well, Geometry is traditionally where they introduce the idea of mathematical proof, which is the key to higher mathematical thought. In other words, the key skill that you should be learning is not so much memorizing the specific theorems about trapezoids, but learning how to construct and follow the proof of a theorem in the first place. (Though of course, memorizing specific theorems will help you get through the exams in this course, and knowing previous theorems is helpful in constructing proofs of subsequent theorems.) In effect, it’s training in “how to think like a mathematician.”

    In addition, the various properties of triangles you will be studying form the foundation of trigonometry, which is used heavily in precalculus and calculus.

    So there’s some reasonable basis for requiring Geometry as a prerequisite for more advanced studies, even if a lot of the specifics may not be used in subsequent courses.

  • Thanks so much for writing, Dave W. I can appreciate all that about geometry; it’s just that the bad memories I have of taking the subject before is spurring my dread. Sometimes it’s easy to psych oneself out!

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