Mathochism: It’s a B!

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’ve been avoiding my college’s website for the last week. Part of it had to do with Christmas — there was a lot to do, such as decorating and cooking and gift-buying and card-writing.

A bigger part of it had to do with denial.

What if I had once again screwed up the final, the way I did in Geometry? What if I had gone from the grade I had earned consistently to one lower, because I screwed up problems I actually knew how to solve? And in this case, what if I went from a B to a C?

A C in precalc, after all this time and work, would make me cringe. It would make me question that tenuous notion that I may not suck at math after all. It would make me fall back into that mindset that something isn’t worth doing unless you excel at it right away.

I’ve pondered over that particular embedded theology since I wrote about it earlier in the month, and remembered an incident from my childhood.

A family friend, M, worked in aviation. But his hobby was painting. It was a hobby he’d taken up later in life, though he had likely been interested in it for years. His house was full of completed canvases, some on the walls, some stacked against them.

As I recall, M had no illusions of great talent. He didn’t try to sell his stuff, or exhibit it anywhere but at home. It was his creative outlet, and that was all.

But I remember how my father scoffed at M’s attempts. How deluded of M to do this, my father said. Who did M think he was? He certainly wasn’t any good!

At the time, my father fancied himself an art buff, and he went to a lot of exhibits and museums and subscribed to “Art in America.” We had quite a lot of original art on the walls, some that I liked, some that I didn’t.

But I never dared question my father’s expertise. I can’t say I even remember what M’s work looked like, because I’ve always been more verbal than visual. Maybe M was awful after all.

But was that really the point? The act of painting brought M joy. Learning to solve a difficult math problem has brought me joy. Maybe my father might have enjoyed doing some drawing, or painting, if someone hadn’t come along and told him it wasn’t worth doing unless he was good at it right away. Or several someones. Or all of society.

Oh well. In case you didn’t guess from the title of this post, I got a B in precalculus. B for better than average. B for bah humbug.

B for beautiful.

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

8 comments

  • B is for “badass”. Great job!

  • Aww… thanks!!!

  • A.K. – a classic example of how parents (usually inadvertently) foster perfectionism and harsh self-judgements in their kids, and also of how someone can learn to rise above that. Great job!

  • Hello. I’ve been lurking around your blog for a while and I thought I’d finally comment because of this: “Learning to solve a difficult math problem has brought me joy.” I am just about to graduate from university and now that I am FINALLY, OH MY GOD, HAPPY DAY no longer studying math? I strangely…find myself looking up math problems on the internet and trying to do them. And I realized something: without the pressure of grades, I like doing math problems too. I’ve decided it’s kind of like crossword puzzles (which I also love). Maybe it’s not the most productive thing to do, but it keeps me sharp and it’s fun! And maybe some crossword puzzles or math problems/subjects will kick my ass (random variables, I hate yoooou) but that just means I should put that puzzle down and move on to the next one.

  • Congratulations — and good luck with calculus! I wouldn’t worry — solid precalculus students (and a B is quite solid indeed) tend to do very well in Calculus 1 classes [mathematician here].

  • Several mathematicians have told me this. I certainly hope it’s true in my case!

  • This post really resonates with me. I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend’s father about how amateurism is so undervalued and how that’s such a shame because there is so much to be gained from doing things that give us joy, even if we’re not professionals. He’s a musician and a music professor and I grew up dancing (though without professional aspirations). I was saying that even though due to my joint disorder, I can’t move like I used to, I think I’ll always be a dancer, silly as that is. He said that as a musician he knew exactly what I meant and that it’s not about the physical act of making music or how good your technique is, but how you relate to the world.

    I think that’s kind of true for a lot of things. Math too. If you enjoy thinking about it and appreciate the beauty in it, then there’s value in that, even if it’s a struggle sometimes.

    My own father is currently on a campaign to convince me to abandon my plans for further study-I just finished my undergrad degree in math-because I struggled occasionally. My own feeling about this is that I love it, my professors think that I have a shot at doing solid work, and that I struggle sometimes because math is hard. If it weren’t, there’d be nothing left to figure out. And the challenge is what makes it meaningful for me.

    Anyway, I wanted to say both congratulations and rock on.

  • Thanks! And I wish you luck with your further studies. In my experience, parents often have mistaken views of their children, and even if those views are positive (my daughter is the bestest dancer/writer/singer), it can lead to pigeonholing.
    As for joint issues — those bite. They bite hard.

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