Miss Pelican's Perch

Looking at my World from a Different Place

How Math Scarred Me for Life


Up until middle school I did not have a math phobia. It was not one of my favorite studies, but I did moderately well in the subject.

Then I fell head-first into the the wave of “New Math” that swept through our school district in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  The particular curriculum imposed upon us eliminated the classic categories of mathematics such as algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and instead grouped concepts into what the curriculum designers thought were “unified” ideas:  sets, relations, operations, groups, rings, fields, and vector spaces.  Particularly onerous to me were the exercises of proving theorems with axioms.   And as a result, I floundered.  I was pulling C’s and D’s on tests and barely squeaked a passing grade.

My parents were not able to help.  They knew arithmetic and some algebra and geometry.  My mom was a capable bookkeeper and my dad could calculate board-feet of lumber needed to construct a house.  But vectors and axioms?  Forget it.    I don’t recall any offers for after school tutoring from the school.   In fact, I blocked out most of that middle-school experience from my memory.

I must have scored high on some assessment test because in high school I got dropped into pre-calculus.  The teacher with an absolutely loathsome man whose disdain for young women was quite evident.  Fun and chatty with the boys, he was cool and condescending with the girls,  often belittling them for incorrect answers.   Furthermore, the boys were rewarded for quickly finishing their in-class assignments by being allowed to play chess with the teacher. (Several chessboards going at the same time with the teacher moving from one to another).  The rest of us, mostly girls and a few boys, were left on our own to work on our assignments. I don’t recall any help offered (he was busy check-mating).    In another course, the instructor was much kinder but could not control his class.   At the time, computers were being introduced, and we were given assignments to complete on it.   To get the girls off the computer so they could play with it, some boys would do the girls’ assignments to move them along more quickly.   If the instructor knew what was happening, he did nothing about it.

Worst of all was my having to explain to my parents why I would come home with a report card that had four A’s and a C+ in math.   They were not buying my explanations of the poor quality of the teachers.  They figured I was spending too much time reading books or watching television.  By that time I had developed a full-blown case of math-anxiety.

When I went to college, I was able to avoid taking math for several semesters until I just could not dodge it anymore.  Before I became a history major, I was a psychology major and had to take Statistical Math and Statistical Methods before I could take some of the more interesting psychology courses.  Two remarkable things happened:

First, I excelled in Statistical Math.   I think it had a lot to do with the course being taught by a woman who was patient and took the time to explain and help.  I was also an adult who had had time to build up some inner confidence.   Whatever psychological block I had seemed to evaporate.   I got my first A ever in math.

Secondly, I learned something about math.  You might think mathematics is cut and dried, black and white, always precise.  That is, with math there is only one correct answer.   Not true.   Half way through Statistical Methods I discovered that there are multiple ways to analyze data.  One statistical formula could give you a different result than another formula with the same data.   My eyes were opened to the fact that you could prove just about anything if you tinkered with the numbers.  A major disillusionment with math set in.  It was probably an over-reaction, but was real nevertheless.

With that I marched into my advisor’s office and said “I’m switching my major from Psychology to History.”   His reply:  “You would rather study dead people than live ones?”   Yep, because at least I would not have to do math.

I have often wondered:  if I had had a better experience with math, would I have gone on to excel in the sciences and perhaps have had a better-paying and more prestigious career?

I’ll never know.

ljg   2017



11 thoughts on “How Math Scarred Me for Life

  1. I could do geometry in my sleep because I could see the relationships, but algebra and trigonometry were disastrous. I passed algebra because I had a tutor from the math club, but I often tell people that I type like the wind because of my high school trig teacher. He asked me to wait after class one day, and told me that he had taken the liberty of finding me a different class for that hour because I was falling so far behind and he didn’t want me to lose my honors GPA. The only teacher who would take me, since it was after the add-drop date but before the quarter marking period, was the office skills teacher, so off to typing class I went. He could have let me hang, but he didn’t.

    Anyway, as a adult the problem became more clear: I have dyscalculia. The numbers just jumbled up for me in other maths, but geometry was spacial. I think that, with smaller classes and more one-on-one instruction and some assistance, I might have done much better … but that wasn’t on in US public schools in the 1970s.

    Anyway, I completely understand the math anxiety. Thanks for sharing your story.

    Sharon E. Cathcart
    Award-winning Author of Fiction Featuring Atypical Characters

  2. Math has always been a struggle for me, hence why I became an English major. But I do love how math is no longer viewed as gender-ized, that females can excel at math as well

  3. Great personal experience, one I bet is duplicated many times throughout math classes around the country. It is such a shame, to lose talented math minds! It has so much to do with the teacher in math. My daughter almost became a math major in college because the teachers were so talented.

  4. Math and I were never the best of friends either. I’m sure the math teachers I had were wonderful people, but they seemed to gravitate towards the mathematically gifted, rather than those of us who may have needed some extra guidance.

  5. About the ‘better and higher paying career” – I don’t know. Maybe. But in my long years in the workforce, I found one thing to be more true than what a person knew in regard to getting plummy and high paying jobs – it’s always who ONE KNEW. Didn’t matter if the person in question was a high functioning idiot (able to pass themselves off as one of the herd – no insult to people with cognitive challenges intended). One could be the higher muckety muck’s stupid nephew and get the top job the rest of the rabble were fighting over.

    Like you, I am a product of the educational system in the late 60s/early 70s. I was taught the same way that you describe. More emphasis on my homemaking skills than on math or science or anything vaguely ‘male’ oriented. The teachers (most of them) had the same disdain for teaching girls as you describe too. It wasn’t until I was 40 years old that I actually learned algebra-taught by a man who knew how to TEACH. I did excel in science in my youth, but without math, that went nowhere.

    And today I still feel vaguely cheated. And I loathe math. But oddly enough the occasional on-line quiz with math questions isn’t any problem at all. I usually get them right. So maybe age trumps all the fears and so-called short comings we see in ourselves?

  6. I was in advanced math, too. In 10th grade, my math teacher got mad at me and called me an ethnic epithet. I was so angry that I vowed to never take another math class. I finished the year and did just that.

  7. Mrs. Weed in fourth grade scarred me for life, and i was never interested in math after that. It’s very common, i think.

  8. I was quite lucky- math made sense to me, and I liked it. But apart from a bit of statistics (which was my least favorite branch) I haven’t had to use it in my degree or work.

  9. I find it unfortunate that this is a common story with math and females. I am thankful that by the time I was in high school the times were starting to change and now my girls have some positive role models in the maths and sciences.

  10. How awful! I was lucky. All my math teachers from 8th grade on were wonderful, patient people. I eventually got a Ph.D. in math.

    I love this part: One statistical formula could give you a different result than another formula with the same data. My eyes were opened to the fact that you could prove just about anything if you tinkered with the numbers.

    This is why we have to take the words “studies show” with a large grain of salt.

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