Mathochism: Life in the B-Zone

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

My dread increased as the afternoon wore on. By the time I was driving to class, I had that icky feeling I get when I wake up too early in the morning, best described as a mixture of exhaustion and nausea. About five blocks from school, a black cat ran in front of my car. Luckily, I was at a stop sign at the time.

I got my usual seat in class, and pulled out my notebook and pencil. The Youthful Professor was right on time, and I watched him pull a wad of paper out of his battered backpack (that is one of those little touches that make him look like a high school senior; then again, a briefcase would make him look like he was playing dress-up).

He told us he was going to hand out the test in a moment, but first he had an announcement. It was one of those announcements that needed to be written on the board.

Oh dear. Now what?

“Overcoming Test Anxiety. Free workshop, Oct. –. Taught by Professor X and College Guidance Counselor Y.”

We should consider it, the Youthful Professor said. Other students had found the workshop useful.

Yikes. Had our collective yips made us all fail? Was intense counseling the best alternative?

Then, he started handing out the exam. The dread cornered me, like a bore at a cocktail party. Finally, YP said my name. I took the test from him.

83 percent.

Sigh. Well, that was certainly better than 58 percent! But how had I gotten five out of 30 questions so wrong? I looked at the final question, which I had changed after some consideration. Guess I shouldn’t have changed it after all!

YP started lecturing on polynomials, but I wasn’t listening. I went over the test, trying to be subtle, yet counting on his ability to immerse himself in the material. Interval notation is still not my friend. That problem with radicals? Yeah, it would have helped if I’d recognized that as a square, not fourth root.

Overall, the mistakes I made were due to under-thinking and some clumsiness, not a lack of understanding of the material. Except for the last question. I really thought I got that right.

During the break, Assertive Woman confronted the Youthful Professor. She could have sworn the answer to the last question was 3. How could 2 be right? Good point, YP answered. It actually is 3! I’ll change it on the key.

And that’s how my 83 percent turned into 86 percent. That’s still a B. I’m in the B-Zone. I hope I can move into the A-Zone. I’ll try my best, and work on warding off the yips. But it’s not about grades, right?


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


  • An 86 percent on something that made you nervous is not bad at all. Are you considering the workshop on overcoming test-anxiety? (I have had students who underperform in exam situations due to panic, which makes me want to chuck the tests entirely, but sometimes the university and/or department won’t allow that.)

  • I did consider it, but I have a previous thing that day I really would rather not cancel. The thing is, I know how to calm myself, and what works for me. It’s just that the disastrous performance this past summer threw me. Now I’m back on the math horse, and I know I can do this stuff. As Uchitel would say, I just need “cwonfeedence”!

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