My Math Anxiety

Math Anxiety

For me, math anxiety is a real thing.  How is it that I, who hasn’t had a math class in 27 years, still has math anxiety.  I actually have a recurring “nightmare” that I am in a college math class with a foreign-born, non-understandable-English-speaking professor, trying to prepare for an exam.  In the dream, I quit going to the class because of the language barrier, but I awaken one morning to remember that today is the exam, the one for which I have not studied.

When I have this dream, I startle awake to my 47-year-old’s bedroom, my husband sleeping soundly beside me, and remember that I do not have a math exam today.  In fact, it is within my control that I will never have another math exam, ever.  This dream does stem from a real experience though.  In my undergraduate studies, I had to take a not-for-credit, below-our-expectations-for-a-college-student, remedial math class.  And the professor was foreign and hard to understand, so I re-taught myself and passed the exam.  Apparently, I had more anxiety about that class that I’d like to admit.

But what is fascinating to me is that I still have this dream, several times a year, and that it is so frightening to me.

I have the privilege of teaching at the high school I attended.  So some of the teachers I work with were my high school teachers.  This is true for Mr. Babbitt, now just Bob.  I remember visiting his classroom one day during my first year of teaching and being dumbfounded by the nice, calming, hand-made posters he had on the wall.  One read something like: “Don’t be anxious.  Math isn’t bad.  I’ll help you through.”  Those weren’t the exact words, but that was the message.  Where were those posters when I was a kid?  Does “Bob” remember the B I worked my butt off for my senior year in Algebra II?  Apparently not.  (To his credit, he was a patient teacher.)

Another frequent dream is forgetting my locker combination and struggling to get it open, all the while, worrying about beating the bell to be on time for class.  The stress.  (Today, even as a teacher with the ability to write tardy passes for others, I am anxious if I can’t make it out of the bathroom before the bell to my own class!  I always tell my students that school is great training for prison.)  But because the locker combination involves numbers, I know this memory too hinges on my phobia of math.

My trouble all started when “they” attached letters to numbers.  I was good at fractions and loved geometry, but algebra, not so much.  It may have had more to do with Larry, my eventual first boyfriend, who sat beside me and was distracting to my adolescent mind.  (That whole experience should have been averted, but I was young and didn’t notice he was a senior in a freshman math class.)  When did X and Y start attaching themselves to numbers?  And who cares what’s the value of X anyway?  Not me.  Give me a sentences with all letters, and I can revise it for you, diagram it for you, but solve it for X, nope.

Plus, I am nearing 50, and to my knowledge, my math “deficiencies” haven’t hurt me.  I know what is important to me.  For example, I can tell you that something that is 3 for $1 means each item is 33 cents, and that if an item costs $20 and is 30% off, I’ll save $6, so the item will be $14 plus tax.  (Don’t ever forget the tax.)  I can measure a room and tell you the square footage or even the yardage needed for carpet, the same for walls for wallpaper or paint.  I can also balance my checkbook and look up my amortization schedule online for my mortgage payment–even if I pay more than required each month! So there, take that math geeks of America!  I feel functional enough!

I have a philosophy about math.  I have always thought that some people’s brains just aren’t ready to be taught certain types of math that are presented to them in school.  For instance, maybe if I had been taught algebra at 25, I would have been ready.  It’s that whole frontal- cortex-development-thing.  Or if it were taught when I had a need, like the carpet and wallpaper example, I’d be ready.

This philosophy was put the to the test this last year though.  My sixteen-year-old daughter is taking geometry, a course I loved and rocked in high school, if I might add.  But the course has changed.  I think math teachers are slipping in algebra  and maybe trigonometry into it.  I held my ground the first week or two, but after that I could only give my daughter blank stares when she asked me a question.  Now, I refer her to her teacher or Aunt Karol who is a math teacher.  I also bought her a $100 calculator (on sale, thank you very much), but I can barely turn it on, let alone, help her use the thing.  I am hoping there is refresher calculator instruction the first week of Algebra II, or we are both in trouble.

But, I still contend that given the right “atmosphere,” I, an intelligent, three-degreed English teacher, could learn math if I wanted to.  I just don’t seem to want to.  Maybe I will when my brain is more developed.

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