Mathochism: Math pride

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

I got my last exam back, and it was as bad as I feared — 76 percent. Well, technically, it was 80 percent, but I was so tired that day from my snore-filled powerless night that I marked the wrong space on the Scantron on a question and thus got it wrong.

Dammit, dammit, dammit!

The Youthful Professor was sympathetic but unyielding, and that’s okay, since allowing the “I marked the wrong space because I was tired” defense would likely open up a portal to hell. And it doesn’t matter, because this test score, my lowest, will be dropped anyway. My average is a solid B, and as long as I don’t choke on the final, my grade should be a solid B.

It’s really about math pride. I didn’t get a C! I got a B! I am not a bad math student! This needs to go on the record!

But there’s a bright side. Looking back on how I felt about this subject for decades — fear, loathing, desperation, disgust — I can now say those feelings have changed. I am NOT a bad math student. I am not a brilliant math student, but I’m NOT a bad one.

Have I learned the material? Yes.
Have I understood it? So far, yes. (Calculus will be the ultimate test.)
Do I understand my mistakes, and why they were mistakes? Yes.
Do I know how to correct those mistakes in future? Yes. (I hope.)

The fact that I can say yes to the four questions above is a huge change, even as it fights with the deeply ingrained message I have gotten since childhood, reinforced by parents, by teachers, by society. That message, of course, is that something isn’t worth doing unless you excel at it immediately.

It’s a toxic message, and one that sets you up for inertia, and one that, sadly, is pushed more at women than men, since we’re seen as less than in the first place. A woman who is good at math, or sports, or writing, or pretty much anything seen as worthwhile (childcare and housekeeping need not apply) is the exception and not the rule.

Not brilliant immediately? Well, you’re just a woman after all. And men don’t want to marry smart women. (Except when they do. Guess my spouse is a freak for finding my math studies hot.)

Ugh. All those toxic messages, spoken and unspoken, whittling away at the joy of learning, the joy of challenging oneself, the joy of seeing just how fascinating the world can be.

Taking on this project was my way of giving the finger to those toxic messages. But I still can’t seem to shake my math pride.

Oh well. Onto the final!

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



  • That message, of course, is that something isn’t worth doing unless you excel at it immediately.

    Thank you for that sentence. I hadn’t thought about things from that perspective before. I’m taking a class and have taken classes that I’m not brilliant at, and it’s always a struggle to accept the grades that come from them. I never had difficult classes in high school because they didn’t cater to Gifted students; hitting college was a BIG surprise. It’s the reason I haven’t taken more science classes; I filled out those requirements with math classes, because those I understood. Chemistry, first semester in college, with no understanding of how to study and no passion for the subject? I barely passed, didn’t understand the material, etc. I think I could take it now, and do better, if I didn’t need to finish my major in the next three semesters. 😉

  • “that something isn’t worth doing unless you excel at it immediately.”

    And note that we don’t even have language for getting out of this trap; as you state above:

    “I am not a brilliant math student, but I’m NOT a bad one. ”

    We structure our discourse so that these are the options: brilliant and bad. And if you’re not brilliant, you’re bad.
    So–is there a positive descriptor for students like you? “Average student” and “decent student” are both slightly (to me, anyway) condescending, while “good student” carries with it “good (but not brilliant) student”.

    We need positive terms for people in the middle of a dichotomy (“fat” and “thin” is another pair that comes to mind).

  • Agreed. And besides, “average” doesn’t fit either. Average is a C. I’ve consistently gotten A’s and high Bs on tests (well, until pre-calc, which has been a middle B streak) since I started this project. Maybe “very good, but not brilliant”?

  • This is a wonderful post. I feel the same way about women’s sports. We often hear that it’s not the same as men’s because men are just stronger and faster, but so what? What if we applied that same thinking to doctors. If you can’t be the best doctor you might as well not be one? That means that we’d only have one doctor on the planet. That’s just insane. I play the violin and I am not a natural at it, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to do the very best that I can. And I am getting much better than I thought I ever could.