I’m no good with numbers.

They confuse me; they all look alike. Get them together in a crowd and I can’t tell the 6 from the 8, the 2 from the 7, the 5 from the 9. Probably I am a bigot. A number bigot.

I remember a moment of sheer panic in first grade when I realized I’d forgotten how to draw a 5. Try as I might, I couldn’t get it right. It was too short, somehow. I wanted to die. I just knew they were going to kick me out of school for such a display of stupidity. They probably should have. Directly over the chalkboard, running the circumference of the room, were all the letters and numbers …

It’s funny – if you have this problem with letters there are all sorts of helpful, compassionate labels like “dyslexic” that you can throw out which will cause people to incline their heads in sympathy and understanding but with math, you’re left shrugging helplessly and people just think “oh – a dumb ass.”

Math undid me in school. I could run rings around many of my classmates with words, with empathy, with appreciation for music and art but when it came to numbers, I was the biggest dolt in class. The kid who’d been held back two years and drooled on himself was better at math than me. After three or so years of this, I just gave up.

“Screw this tripe,” I thought. “I’ll never amount to anything.”

I began to drift.

By the time I hit high school, they’d been trying to cram algebra down my throat for two years. Me, the guy who’d never managed to retain long division, decimals, or fractions being taught algebra. Right.

Algebra really ticked me off. It seemed like they were making it more confusing on purpose, more difficult than it needed to be. “When they have to start bringing in the alphabet,” I thought, “you know they’re stretching it.” Nothing but the basic concept of algebra – find what is missing – made a lick of sense to me. I spent most of my class time observing my fellow students or doodling out prospective dungeons on graph paper.

When the school finally figured out that they would never be able to pound the round peg of math into the square hole of my head, they offered to let me finish out my math credit requirements via business math.

Business math consisted of sitting down with a set of figures and punching them into an adding machine. It was halfway through the quarter, so they set me off in a room by myself to catch up.

I couldn’t believe I was being allowed access to a machine that would do the math for me.

“You mean I can use this to do the problems?” I asked.

“You have to use it to do the problems.”

What luck! If they’d let me have a calculator to begin with, I never would have had such trouble. I caught up to the rest of the class in a week and a half, so they gave me a desk in the classroom proper.

The class was filled with Future Business Leaders of America types in smart skirts and blouses. They looked down their noses at me – the only boy in class and very obviously a future nothing of nowhere. I wanted to point out that I was only joining their little clique because I was a math retard but I didn’t say a thing. I just sat there and let their collective disgust wash over me while I fed numbers into the little machine. Ticketa-ticketa-tappit.

So I stumbled out of high school with only a rudimentary understanding of math basics up to multiplication, a dim recollection of division, and a lovely attitude towards the entire subject. I shrugged it off. I wasn’t going to college, I was going to die poor -and soon. What the hell did I need math for?

Drifting from job to job those early years, I never used anything beyond basic math and exceeded my wildest dreams of success, supporting myself in relative comfort and even going so far as finding a pretty girl to marry; achievements I’d never suspected were in my future.

The most I was ever forced to use math for in a “career” was counting out the drawer of the cash register or making change for customers. I never mastered the classic art of counting it back but, then, that practice has become deprecated, anyway. Only old ladies do that, now. These days, even bank tellers hesitate as they try to figure that all out.

I like to kid around with the tellers whenever I go to the bank to get change, joking that I’m not sure if I’ve got the numbers right; they’d better check twice. Virtually all of the younger tellers inform me that they’re no good at math either and, from some of the transactions I’ve had to correct in these instances, I believe them.

Why would you want a job at a bank if you were no good at math?

Why would the bank hire you?

Eventually I swerved right off my life’s path and went back to school: college -well what do you know?

I’d been having some success manipulating images with graphic software as well as teaching myself to build web pages and, after a couple of years of cajoling from family and friends, I took a class or two and became excited. Hot spit: maybe I could get a job that I liked!

So I went to a two-year college and I manipulated images and I built simple web pages and it was a snore. I could do most of it behind my back and underwater while sleeping. The first two quarters went like this and I began to get cocky. I had a viable talent: look at me, king of the world!

Then a rude awakening: in order to earn my little degree in virtual nothingness, they wanted me to take math.

Math?

Worse, I had to work up to calculus. Calculus?!? I thought calculus was something the vet scraped off of your dog’s teeth. Leave it to the mathies to name some discipline after a dental affliction.

In order to place me in the proper math class, I had to be tested. At first I thought maybe I ought to study, to get some of my rusty skills sharpened, but then I thought, shit, watch me accidentally qualify for some class that is totally over my head – so I didn’t study at all.

The test was for both math and english. It was a timed test, given by a computer. We were informed that the test would increase in difficulty relative to our skills. Each test could take upwards of twenty minutes or more depending on our comprehension of the material.

I suspected I would end up looking scholastically bipolar; acing the english and failing the math.

We sat down at our individual computers and began our tests. Math was first. We had been told we could use pencil and scratch paper if we needed and, for some of the more difficult problems, the computer would provide a virtual calculator.

At each problem, I just sort of peered at the gobbledygook that appeared, then chose an answer that had the most aesthetic appeal. Any answer with more than one symbol in it was ruled out immediately as trying too hard.

My math test ended before five minutes was over. I never used my pencil and scratch paper. The calculator never appeared. I wouldn’t have known what to do with it if it had. I glanced at the student sitting next to me. She was working feverishly at a mass of figures on her scratch paper, her tongue protruding from the side of her mouth as if it was trying to glimpse what she was doing and maybe offer some advice.

I moved on to the english test and worked through it at a steady pace.

When it came time to see the results of our efforts, the instructor told me: “You aced the english portion of the test but, uh, we have math tutors available.”

“So what math class do I need to start in? The lowest, right?” I smiled.

“Actually … you don’t qualify for any of the math classes we have available at the moment. There is a remedial class available off campus, next quarter, however . . . “

I had qualified for Criminal Idiot Math 101.

My advisor was baffled.

“You taught yourself html and css but you can’t do math? I don’t believe it.”

Well, let’s see:

When I sit down and do a page of math, what do I get?

A page of math answers. Oh, joy.

When I sit down and do a page of html and css what do I get?

A functioning webpage that I can display online, that’s what. I get real world results.

Gee, could that be the motivator? Y’think?

I wanted to point out to her that she was right, I had managed to teach myself html and css without higher math, so what was the point of befuddling me with the crap, now? But I held back. I understand, appreciate, and support the whole well-rounded student thing, I really do, and I am pretty well rounded. Hell, sometimes I’m so round I’m obtuse, but what people like my advisor don’t – or won’t – understand, because they “get” math, actually enjoy the crap, is that, like the mechanics of english, you don’t really need to memorize the intricacies of the back story to be successful producing many of the end results. Besides, by the time you’ve been in the work force for over 20 years, the school’s “well-rounded graduate” argument starts to seem rather thin and obvious; nothing more than a scheme to squeeze further funding out of me.

I’d come this far, though. Wouldn’t proving to myself that I could learn math help my self-esteem and strengthen my mental capabilities overall? I thought about it and decided that if I could teach myself html and css (very simple stuff, actually), then I could and should also teach myself as much math as possible in order to limit the horrors of having to sit in math class.

I went to the school bookstore and picked up the beginning algebra book. I flipped to the back and made sure that all the answers were there – they were. Perfect.

Every day before class, I would go to the math lab and work my way through the pages. It was only a few weeks before I ran into some alien and disturbing concepts in my algebra book: decimals, fractions and division.

I called over one of the volunteers for a little help; a kind, elderly gentleman and one of the school math professors. He listened as I explained my problem, looked at my work, looked at me, then closed the book and said: “I think you need to start with a lower level book before you work yourself all of the way up to algebra.”

Back to the bookstore.

The math lab was a terrible environment for learning math. I couldn’t believe the behavior in the place. People sat around talking to each other in loud voices -and rarely about math. I’m a pretty tolerant fellow on the outside. You can spit on me and I’ll just thank you for the moisture, but these sons of bitches were really trying my patience. Numerous times I was tempted to leap to my feet and shout: “Listen, you rotten bastards, you inconsiderate boobs, this is a math lab! I’m trying to do math here – to think – and it aint easy!”

They acted as though it wasn’t out of place to be noisy in the lab. The cacophony didn’t seem to bother anyone but me. Everyone else was either yammering away happily or working diligently at their math, most of which was far more complicated than the basic stuff I was slogging through. Many of them even had on headphones from which various sorts of disruptive music squeeped and blurped. How the hell could they stand it?

So I worked and worked and was surprised at how easy it all seemed as I became more used to the concepts. Certainly it was convoluted, and you had to memorize all the steps but, after that, it was quite easy. Too easy. I kept going back to check my work, not believing that, after a few simple acrobatics with the numbers themselves, it all amounted to basic multiplication.

I was astounded and ebullient at this discovery and told my 12 year old daughter about it.

“Oh, you’re just doing that?” she exclaimed. “We did that last year. Wait ’til you get to what I’m doing, now … “

I began to keep a small piece of paper with instructions on it regarding the various ways to approach different problems: flip the fraction in this instance, work the problems in the parenthesis first, that sort of thing.

Then, one day, it happened.

I was sitting at the kitchen table, doing some algebra when, all of a sudden, it went from being a difficult pain in the ass to being … fun.

Fun?

I closed the book for the last time and backed slowly away from the table, a chill running up my body.

They almost got me.

Yay! I like algebra ðŸ™‚ It is fun haha.

Oh

My

God

You’re one of … THEM!

my consolation before i got to the “f” word point in your story was this: don’t worry – letters are the new numbers.

i’ve had a few moments of levity with math too. it’s good to quit right then, which i did.

I had to think: ‘f word’?

I scanned the writing, sure I’d avoided the expletive.

Then I realized you likely meant “fun” which, when combined with the word “math” BECOMES an oxymoron …

=)

Math is the reason that — despite 4 years of attending classes — I don’t have a college degree. Self-paced Math Mods. You mean, when I feel like it, go in and do some math tests? Hmmm. That’ll be never. I never feel like doing math. Virtual fist-bumping here — I’m witcha.