Math karma - FamilyEducation

Math karma

October 29,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Yesterday afternoon I sat in on a meeting while T. happily watched Dora's Halloween Adventure in the adjacent office (with ear buds on, no less). Someone in the meeting mentioned being "math challenged," and my mind instantly sprang to attention--not in a good way, but in an empathetic way. If there had been a soundtrack to my thoughts at that very instant, you would have heard the music from the Psycho shower scene playing in the background. More than one person at the meeting groaned and admitted to being "math challenged" as well, so at least I wasn't alone. I can still remember excruciating evenings at the kitchen table while my ever-patient dad tried to explain multiplication to me and I thought my head would burst, I really did. I remember my parents bribing me with the promise of licorice or other sweets if I could only learn the times table. Math drove me to tears, literally, and it continued to haunt me all through high school. My favorite math teacher ever, though, was a teacher I had in 11th grade. He was tall and lanky with longish hair and a mustache, and he smelled like garlic. He didn't make math easy for me, but he loved literature and writing and seemed to truly understand how painful math was for me. Before that teacher, all my other ones had been visibly impatient--their frustration seeping from them like a palpable cloud whenever they bent over my paper trying to help me.

When I graduated from high school, that math teacher gave me a worn volume of Shakespeare's plays. I still have it today. The cover slips off when I open it up, and it's far too bulky a book to sit down with comfortably, but I appreciated the gesture so much--this acknowledgment on his part that words were my talent, and that math was like slow torture to me. I went off to college certain I would never ever use math again. Then some years passed, many of them, and I went happily on my way writing poetry and papers and stories and blog posts and columns, until one day I found myself in a tiny room trying to make sense of this:

And this:

And, finally, this:

I think this is all a big joke the universe has played on me, I really do. Back when I was nine, crying and raging about how horrible and incomprehensible math was to me, I never thought ahead to the day I might have to be explaining math to my eight-year-old son. And in college, when I hunched over my algebra book and thought terrible and uncharitable things about the young teaching assistant who was trying, in his well-meaning way, to teach math to people like me, I never thought I would be trying to do the very same one day--or that third-grade math would make my head spin. And when I proudly and defiantly declared to my parents that I didn't need to study math because "I would never need it again," I never ever thought I would--for L.'s sake, need it again. And I have come to appreciate just how patient my dad really was, back when I was struggling so much with math, because I don't seem to have quite as much patience now as he did then.

What IS a mathhopper, anyway?

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Check back tomorrow for the results of the great Halloween Whoopie Pie bake-fest, which will be happening this afternoon at my house, when I  doubtless will be asking myself why I volunteered to make them for T.'s entire preschool class.