Dealing With Math Anxiety

I have to say I'm "50-something" -- not because I'm shy about my age, but because I can't always remember exactly how old I am. It's a number, and numbers and I haven't always been exactly on speaking terms.
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I have to say I'm "50-something" -- not because I'm shy about my age, but because I can't always remember exactly how old I am. It's a number, and numbers and I haven't always been exactly on speaking terms.

I'm a writer, not a mathematician.

For instance, I can't do big-number subtractions in my head. And frankly, why should I? I don't like to do big-number subtractions in my head. That's why we have CALCULATORS.

I probably sound like a petulant child when it comes to "doing" math -- because I am a petulant child in this regard (maybe in some others, too, but we're not here to discuss those). Totally admit it. I mentally regress. I feel like high school math PTSD takes over and it's not pretty. Here I was, an all "A" (with a few "Bs" scattered about) student, flailing and splashing about in geometry (drowning really, but in a spectacular way). I had no business in any math class past basic algebra. Really. The only reason I passed the class -- and I do mean ONLY -- is because my teacher gave credit for attempting to do the problems. Remember: geometry is all about showing your work; figuring the logical progression of theorems to prove that a right angle is 90 degrees is what it's all about, people. I was truly boggled by this: why do we have compasses and protractors then? If you tell me an angle is 75 degrees, I'll believe you. Why do I have to prove it? Let's just measure it, shall we?

There's an old anecdote about how Pythagoras, the philosopher-mathematician, overcame a student's dislike of geometry. The student was poor, so Pythagoras offered to pay him for each theorem he learned. Eager for the money, the student agreed and really applied himself. He eventually became so intrigued by geometry, he begged Pythagoras to go faster in his studies, and even offered to pay his teacher instead. In the end, Pythagoras recouped his losses.

Pythagoras would have gone broke with me.

I mean, c'mon: in geometry, you hear about parallel lines that, by definition, never meet each other -- except they do in some warped mathematical reality dreamt up by Albert Einstein. Whaaaaaaaaa???

When studying geometry, you have to memorize theorems, axioms, and definitions corresponding with names for shapes like dodecagon, heptagon, hexagon, octagon, parallelogram, and the list goes on. If you ask me to draw one of these, sure. But define them with theorems? You're joking.... right?

Algebra was the only math class I took in college. Ever. My family celebrated because I passed it with a B-, something unheard of ever before.

The college professor had a habit of assigning just the odd-numbered problems for homework. When we had our first test, guess who asked if we only had to do the odd-numbered problems?

I'm not sure what turned me into a smart-ass in that class. It might have been "mental armor" for me: math terrifies me at a very basic level. Fight or flight. (Little known fact: the same part of the brain that reacts to fearful situations also lights up like Times Square in response to anxiety caused by math.) Although my usual reaction was flight, I needed this class to graduate, so it became a fight in a way. Black humor has always been my "go-to" superpower. And it didn't let me down with college algebra.

I made fun of "discreet" math, saying "shhh" every time it was brought up.

When we began discussing invisible numbers, I asked what they looked like.

While the other students looked on in horror, I continued maniacally to poke fun at every new chapter. I'm not sure they ever realized that right below the surface of this babbling idiot was the bubbling lunacy of a terrified English major, whose worst nightmare was having to repeat a math class.

It should be noted that the professor's legendary patience became frayed at this time in his tenure. (I heard he unexpectedly retired after that term...)

And here's the irony in this story: my son is a mathematics and science geek.

He adores numbers and equations and theorems, and calculators the size of toasters, whose functions beyond adding-subtracting-dividing-multiplying are beyond me.

At 16, his math classes are the stuff of my worst nightmares.

When he was in 7th grade, he officially surpassed my (limited) knowledge of what he was studying in math. I told him "I sure hope you understand this stuff, because I will be of absolutely no use to you if you have questions about your homework." He didn't seem too concerned. Probably because I hadn't EVER been of any use when it came to math homework.

His math teachers praise him and his "natural curiosity" about all things numbers and equations. I smile proudly and nod sagely in conferences, inwardly feeling like an imposter, and pray to all the gods who ever existed that the teacher isn't some kind of sadistic soul who will say "oh come on and show us where he gets it!" while handing me a piece of chalk and pointing towards the blackboard which holds some kind of devious unfinished theorem. Is it any wonder I feel light-headed every time I walk into a math classroom?

So here I am, the language and literary walking encyclopedia at our house; and there he is, mathematically and science-y blessed. He wants to be an astrophysicist; I've been practicing my best Bronx Mama impression: "My son, the DAHK-teh."

I dream of a Pulitzer; he dreams of a Nobel.

The funny thing is, although I don't understand much of what he studies, he is able to "translate" the scientific to "English" for me, and illustrate for me the wild and amazing theories popular in science today. He will even humor me and explain some of his own theories on dark matter, black holes, and other things really better suited for a dialogue with Neil deGrasse Tyson than with his own Mom.

But he is as besotted with science and numbers as I am with language. And so I ask questions, and with excitement in his voice, hands waving, he explains. I listen. And I'm suddenly captivated by subjects and ideas I never dreamed I'd find even remotely interesting: science and math.

Funny how that happens.

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