I’ve been doing a lot of math in my free time. I originally posted this on Facebook and encouraged family and friends to read it who told me they hated math, or who had ever said “ew” when they asked about my weekend plans.
I’ve given many reasons over the past two years, including “revenge” and “because *&^% ignorance”. Today I have more practical reasons, since I’m working on a Bachelor of Science that requires passing grades in a ton of math, but the truth goes back much farther.
I failed Algebra 2 in high school. Twice. I thought I was simply bad at math and that I always would be, and plus I hated it, because it made me feel stupid. I was good at art and writing, so I went to art school for my first degree. (I decision I do not, and will never, regret.)
Over the course of my creative career, I found myself tasked with building parts of websites that people had to use in order to learn something. To figure out how to do this, I started looking at online education portals, especially Khan Academy because it was showing up in the news a bit at the time. I tried it out, doing some elementary addition and subtraction, taking notes on how the information was presented and laid out, how the interactions worked, how progress was communicated, and all of the things that I might apply to my creative projects.
A short time later I progressed to long division, and I had an epiphany.
My parents will remember how much I struggled with long division as a kid. They’ll also remember that I was always the kind of kid who needed to know “why” and if no good reason was presented, it wouldn’t sink in. Long division never made sense to me – why was there that sideways L thing? Why were these numbers under it? Why did it work at all? At 27, while learning long division again as a side-effect of design research, I realized that long division was something that a human being like me had designed while doing their own research. More than that, it was a truly brilliant design solution; an interactive tool that anyone could create and use with just pencil and paper. I felt something I had never felt in the context of math before: gratitude. And awe.
Eventually the projects that led me to Khan Academy were over and I stopped actively studying online education. I kept doing the math lessons, though. I progressed to basic algebra over the course of months, fueled by small victories, and becoming addicted to the confidence that I was building in a subject that had always made me feel bad and dumb. I began to wonder how far I could take it, and I began to see the walls between me and a career in science become thinner and thinner.
I started getting better at other things, too. Logical puzzles and complex systems that I was tasked with solving at work started to become clearer and turned into my favorite part of the job. My willingness to take on head-scratchers was appreciated by co-workers, and set me apart among creatives.
It was time to put my Khan Academy math to the test. I applied to Berkeley City College and took the math placement test, with the intent of taking a “real life” math course in the spring, partly just to see if I could, and partly to take a sledgehammer to those walls between me and the career I wanted when I was three years old.
I was in the testing room an hour longer than anyone else. I made the administrator watch the clock until the allotted time for the test was finally up. I hadn’t brought a calculator – I didn’t even own one – and I had a stack of scratch paper filled with dead ends when I finally ran out of time. The administrator printed out my results right there and I scored at the level of Statistics 1. That week I enrolled in a math class for the first time in ten years.
I’m not good at math. It’s incredibly hard and it takes me forever, and I’m probably going to get a C in precalculus even though it’s online and I can re-submit all the answers as many times as I like. Most of math still seems haphazard to me – an organic jumble of accidents that just happen to work and magician’s tricks for looking at things that you can only see just barely out of the corner of your eye. I still couldn’t tell you how I’ll be using any of it, either. But I get a sense of victory every time I finish a problem and my brain hurts in a good way when I spend productive time with it. It might be my version of a runner’s high – something vaguely masochistic that I can’t really explain, but can’t stop doing. I like it better than running, at least.
If you’ve said “ew” or “how boring” when I turned down your happy hour invite to go home and do math, I hope you can see now why that made me upset. I may even have de-friended you for it – not because I hate happy hours (you all know I love happy hours) but because my new relationship with math was still fragile, and I felt protective of it, like it was a delicate seedling and you were a strong breeze or some jerkface cat getting too close for comfort. I needed to keep it safe in a little greenhouse where my own doubts wouldn’t be fed.
If you’ve felt lately that you hate math, I get it. Trust me. I wanted you to read this because I wanted you to know that your hate is one side of the frustration that comes along with doing something hard. It can be a good frustration. It can make you feel good. Maybe it never will, and that’s ok, but I just want you to know that it can.