Confessions of a Math Dummy

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My parents were my first teachers, and this is a fact that I took for granted for most of my life. Both of them had extremely hearty appetites for knowledge of everything in the world, in addition to being willing to purchase numerous books, magazines and newspapers for all of us. No matter where we lived (my father was in the Air Force, so we traveled a lot), we always made room for two large bookcases in the living room, and at least three smaller bookcases for every bedroom.  Naturally, I spent many hours engrossed in the family library.  My parents never forced me to read; my love for books came from that old childhood tradition of bedtime stories.  I was so enraptured by these night time excursions into imaginary worlds that I always wanted to hear more. 

The inevitable “lights out” came too quickly, which made me determined to learn to read so I could enjoy the stories on my own.  At first, my efforts to match those strange markings on a page to spoken language amused my parents until they realized that I was serious about learning to read. Then they taught me the alphabet, and how letters are put together to represent the words that we speak. Reading became effortless until I tried to read one of my parents’ books.  It was frustrating because I couldn’t figure out how those long combinations of letters represented any of the words I used everyday.  My mother encouraged to be patient and diligent: “Sound it out,” she told me. “Then I’ll tell you what it means.”  She always made good on that promise, at least until I learned to use a dictionary. Thus began a lifetime of enjoying the literary arts, and of course, learning.

The ease in which I acquired literary skills was vastly off-set by the appalling difficulty I had in mathematics. Any subject that required a copious amount of reading was barely a challenge, but I fell to the very bottom of my class when I had to do anything beyond simple addition and subtraction. In fact, I often failed in performing those tasks. My confidence in my intellectual abilities plummeted to the soles of my feet. I could not understand how I could breeze through any reading or writing assignment, yet stare at my math homework and tests as if I hadn’t been introduced to the numeric system until that moment.  By the fourth grade, I was capable of doing only first grade computations.  When I graduated from high school in 1976, I was finally able to muddle through fourth grade arithmetic. The “C-” grade that I earned in beginning algebra remains a mystery to me, even now.  I must have been lucky enough to guess the correct answers on the final exam.

When I transferred from Cosumnes River Community College to California State University at Sacramento in 1978, I was delighted to learn that mathematics was not a graduation requirement for English majors. I had already fulfilled my science requirement at Cosumnes by taking Physical Anthropology and Contemporary Natural Science, both of which were survey classes of (then) current scientific information.  They required very little mathematic ability, but there was an emphasis reading, taking notes in lectures and spending time in science laboratory. That was fine with me.  I remember being very relieved that my math deficiency wouldn’t deter me from earning a good grade in the classes. I was able to successfully transfer and graduate from Sacramento State with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. It bears noting that while I was on campus, I took great care to avoid walking anywhere near the Math Department.

A misstep developed in my career path after graduation—I wanted to teach high school English, but I couldn’t pass the mathematics section of the CBEST (California Basic Educational Skills Test) exam. I tried three times, but my score was far below average.  In fact, by the time I took the test for the third time, my score only improved by five points. I felt miserable; my learning deficiency had created an obstacle too formidable for evasive action.  More importantly, I was a single parent with three children to support. I desperately needed a job, but I was extremely ashamed that I could earn an undergraduate degree in English, yet fail to pass a basic math exam. For years, I accepted one job after another that barely paid for my family’s living expenses.

After a series of disheartening excursions into customer service and seasonal work in standardized test scoring, I decided to return to Sacramento State University to get a Master’s degree in English. My goal was to avoid further math test embarrassment and become qualified to teach English at the community college level. I would have succeeded if a few of my English professors hadn’t been so observant. They noticed that I had to be shown many times how to calculate students’ grade averages and that I refrained from any math-related task when I was a teaching assistant.  They suggested that I schedule an appointment with the Learning Skills Office for a diagnostic test.  Reluctantly, I complied, even though I felt that their suggestions affirmed what I already knew to be the truth—that I was chronically and irreversibly “math retarded” (my term for myself). 

I don’t remember much about the test except that it took me five and a half hours to complete, and I had developed an excruciating headache when I was at mid-point.  But it was the best thing I could have done for my academic progress.  The results showed that I have an audio-visual learning style, and I process information “globally”. This means that everything I hear, see, touch and smell is turned into a mental picture, a process that usually makes information easy for me to recall. Being a “global” thinker means I need time to see if the information matches up with anything I already know, and if does, it must make sense to me in an overall “big picture” way.  If I can’t make any association with the material, I need even more time to mentally “wrestle” with it until I can break it down into meaningful concepts.

Learning anything by rote or “repeat after me” (the preferred methods of teaching math when I was growing up), has been extremely difficult for me.  When confronted with an unfamiliar term or concept, I need time to process the underlying “hows” and “whys” of a problem so I could form a mental picture of what I was supposed to be learning  Without this processing time, I was left with a blank space in my brain where information is supposed to be.  Since many math exams in elementary and secondary school were timed, I felt extreme pressure to solve problems that I didn’t understand in the first place, and I consistently failed. As a result, I fell farther and farther behind my classmates in math proficiency.

The test also revealed that I have a spatial perception disability, which means judging distances, drawing three-dimensional objects and performing manual tasks like cutting out sewing patterns or hanging a picture on a wall are a challenge for me. (This also explained why I failed home economics in junior high school, although I considered that class inconsequential to my college aspirations.)

“You should be proud of yourself,” my learning skills counselor told me during my post-test appointment.  “The results show that you have a very keen mind, perfect for academic work.”

Yeah, I thought, as long as it doesn’t include long division and multiplying fractions.

She reviewed the computer print-out again and said, “You also have good potential for the higher, more theoretical forms of mathematics. You struggle with the basics because of the way you’ve been taught, but once you get past that, you can delve into some really interesting mathematical theories.”

I left her office feeling that she must have had some kind overwhelming personal crisis that affected her left brain functioning.  Or she picked up the wrong print out.  There was no way I could ever get into theoretical mathematics; I didn’t even know such a thing existed. But I was extremely grateful for the information about my learning process.

What has happened since I took the diagnostic test is that I now understand my learning style, and I accept the way my brain works.  I am not a “math retard”; I just need a lot of time to absorb the concepts and work at a slower pace. After taking some remedial math courses and gaining more confidence and proficiency in the skills, I’ve noticed that I need less time to work out problems.  This is so encouraging to me that I am considering enrolling in Algebra I and II at Sacramento City College, and re-taking the CBEST. 

Unfortunately, I’ve haven’t realized my dream of teaching either high school or community college English on a full time basis, and given the current educational budget concerns, my chances are quite slim. My health had become poor in the past fifteen years, and even though I have successfully recovered from most of my ailments, I am uncertain that I have the physical stamina to be the type of energetic and thoroughly engaged teacher that students deserve. Furthermore, the on-going philosophical and budget battles over educational policy/reform, increased lay-offs for current teachers and my personal view that there is sporadic movement toward creating a comprehensive, enriching educational system in this country are all very discouraging to me. I firmly believe that all students, regardless of mental capability, economic circumstances and learning styles that do not match “norming standards”, should have access to all the resources necessary to make learning a life-transforming, empowering experience. At fifty three years old, I wonder if I have passed the age where I could make an effective, long-term contribution toward that endeavor.

However, it would be extremely gratifying on a personal level to finally pass the math portion of that CBEST exam, even if I never have the chance to walk into a high school English classroom, write “Ms. Shortt” on the blackboard and say, “Good morning, class. Open your books to page….”

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