Mathochism: Pass the popcorn

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 got exciting in geometry during the last session.

I wish I could say the main reason for that excitement was that I learned something new (though I did). But no — it was the kerfuffle that arose near the end of class due to a somewhat tricky theorem.

Back when I was studying Algebra with the Dour Professor, negative class dynamics made a big difference in the learning experience. In that case, it was a selection of various young men (belonging to that often infuriating subset called “bros”) who caused the problems. Said bros were often rude to the instructor and to their fellow classmates. Infuriating behavior included talking loudly during class, demanding special privileges and “translating” the professor, who spoke with a non-American accent.

Uchitel also speaks with an accent, but so far, no one has tried to translate him. But other rude behaviors have manifested over the last two sessions (two chatterboxes were sitting behind me Tuesday, munching Corn Nuts throughout — between the smell and the crunching, I just wanted throw something at them by the end of class), and boiled up Thursday. The difference between these tensions and those in the last class? The troublemakers weren’t bros. They weren’t even male (or at least, present themselves as such).

I mentioned Befuddled Girl in my last entry. I use the term “girl” not to infantilize, but because when I held that title, I was in my early teens, and technically a girl, and it’s less about age and more about state of mind. Every math class I’ve taken thus far seems to have one, and this class’ Befuddled Girl looks to be in her late 40s to early 50s, or about Uchitel’s age. She is certainly eager to learn, because she always sits front row center and grabs that seat before the last class has even left the room.

Her tone when she asks questions, though, is often annoyed. I can relate to being frustrated at not understanding, but it is still grating. Befuddled Girl, however, is way less distracting than the Arguer.

The Arguer looks like she is in her early to mid-20s. And while she occasionally provides answers in a superior tone, she doesn’t ask questions — she scoffs. An example: Uchitel was constructing congruent angles on the board with the giant compass (oh, how I want one!). He was showing us how arcs are part of circles, and therefore, the rays of each angle were also radii of the two circles.

She begged to differ. He offered her the giant compass and asked her to prove her argument. She drew a separate circle in-between the other two, which was supposed to prove two other lines were the true radii. Sure, it wasn’t impossible for there to be a circle there, but it was irrelevant to the proof. But instead of just acknowledging she might be wrong, the Arguer shrugged and flounced back to her seat. After that, she was gunning for Uchitel big time.

Then, there’s The Contemptuous One. TCO, another 20-something, sat next to me, and I heard her telling a classmate before class that she wasn’t impressed by Uchitel’s teaching, because he occasionally returns to a forgotten part of the lecture, elaborates, then gets back on point. Maybe the Brofessor has lowered the bar too much for me, but such brief digressions don’t bug me. As long as there’s a context and he gets back on topic, that’s fine.

But TCO is not impressed, and that is why she point-blank refused to even try and solve the tricky theorem I mentioned at the beginning, telling him “I’m not going to do that, I’m not the teacher!” Mmmmkay.

But before I elaborate on that contentious theorem, let me introduce the last cast member in this scuffle — Oil On Troubled Waters Woman. OOTWW, like Befuddled Girl, looks to be in her late 40s-early 50s. Unlike Befuddled Girl, she goes out of her way to be amiable. She also loves to talk, at high volume, and tells elaborate and possibly TMI stories to her increasingly bewildered classmates. I don’t dislike OOTWW. I would just flee her at a cocktail party, because I know I would never get a word in edgewise.

Anyway, picture these four characters about 15 minutes before class ended. The Arguer has Uchitel in her sights. TCO is rolling her eyes and sighing. Befuddled Girl looks irritated. OOTWW is bursting to talk.

I could tell Uchitel was tired (he later told us we were his third class of the day, and he still had one to go). For that matter, I was tired and having trouble concentrating. But I did my best to grasp the niceties of formal proofs, hypotheses and conclusions. My mind started to boggle a bit, though, when he asked us to prove the following:

“If two angles are congruent, then they are complementary to the same angle.”

He told us to work on that, and I set to, trying to organize my argument the way he had shown us. My drawing convinced me there were three angles, and since they were complementary, they added up to 90 degrees. Now, to construct my proof!

But my classmates had no intention of trying. The Arguer immediately started in on how she didn’t get it. Befuddled Girl chimed in. The Contemptuous One made a somewhat relevant statement, then ruined it with her charming “I’m not the teacher!” retort.

Oil On Troubled Waters Woman tried to joke the tension away. To be fair, they were just the loudest. There was other, more muted grumbling and confusion. I tried to keep my head down and do the work, though I wasn’t sure I was on the right track.

Then, Uchitel lost his patience. He didn’t yell, but he spoke forcefully. First, he worked out the proof, and I was delighted to see I was on the right track, though I’m still not sure how I got there. Then, he announced he did not appreciate the class disruption (this was aimed mainly at TCO and the Arguer), that those who didn’t like his teaching style were free to drop. He said this was basic stuff, but that it involved a solid understanding of Algebra (which explains my floundering back in high school) and mainly a desire to just do the work.

Class ended on a pretty bad note. The only good news is that, since we have yet to finish chapter one, the chapter one and two exam will not be next Tuesday as previously scheduled. Thank goodness! I hope to be able to grasp that theorem by then. I also hope things will have settled down by then.

If they don’t, I’m going to need some popcorn. What’s a good drama without popcorn?

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



  • OK, so I was never very good at mathematical proofs… but this is fuel for my theory that geometry classes are ripe breeding grounds for irritating behavior! It sounds like you’re one pain in the neck short of a royal flush.

  • Ugh, yeah. We’ll see how it goes!

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