Arithmophobia, or, Why Math Sucks (And is Also Awesome)

Math is my nemesis. It is the Luther to my Superman, the Decipticon to my Bumblebee, the Mojo Jojo to my Buttercup. I feel like most writers can empathize with the struggle to control numbers, as we use the right side of our brain to do really complex things like write beautiful sentences, paint-by-numbers, and make boobs out of clay (was that just me?), while the left sides of our brains rot in brain juice, ripe for zombie picking. What I mean to say is, we’re not mathematicians. Usually.

I struggled with math growing up–or at least, I thought I did. In my family, any grade below an 85 was good cause for a grounding. My parents are both math freaks, and I say that in the most loving way possible. My mother majored in Applied Mathematics (blegh) at Brown, and my father studied some form of engineering at Case Western (double blegh). For them, numbers just make sense. For me, numbers were the devil that I couldn’t exorcise out of my system fast enough.

Pazuzu (The Exorcist)
THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU, A-squared + B-squared = C-squared!

I wasn’t terrified of numbers per se, but math tests kept me up at night with cold sweats and nightmares. The monsters in my dreams spouted algebraic equations while chasing me with chainsaws down alleyways ruled in graph paper.

My father didn’t help, either. My father is a lot like Denzel Washington. In fact, all of my father’s angry characteristics were pulled from Denzel Washington characters. The resemblance is so uncanny that I can’t watch American Gangster or Training Day without being extremely uncomfortable. And I love Denzel Washington with a fiery passion. But my father and I are not on speaking terms (his decision, not mine). So, basically, watching any Denzel Washington film sparks an inner conflict that results in constant emotional torture. Do I love the actor? Or cringe because my dad makes that exact face? Decisions, decisions.

Anyway, my father had extremely high standards. And when we didn’t live up to them, there were consequences. In the math department, I never, ever lived up to his expectations. I would get an 86 on a math test, be thrilled, and take it home to show off. My mother would congratulate me, understanding that when I see numbers I really see little demons trying to poke my eyes out. But my father would make his Denzel Washington face and say, “I’m very disappointed in you.”

My father, disappointed.

Which, as we all know, is the worst thing a parent can say.

Three weeks later, when I had another math test to show my parents, this time a 91, I would come home nearly in tears of joy. I would bounce, skip, and frolic my way to my father’s office. Upon speaking the secret password (the secret password being: Whitney’s allowed in the office and no one else is, suckers), I would say, “Dad! I have something to show you!” Whereupon I would pull out my A- math test, beaming.

My father would look at the math test, a slight, cruel turn to his mouth forming. He would then look at me, face blank, and say, “You could do better.”

My father, ecstatic.

I suppose that was his way of trying to motivate me, but it really just made me cry into my mother’s arms.

From sixth grade on, math became my adversary. Try as I might, I couldn’t master quadratic equations, curves, parabolas, geometry, or algebra. And by “couldn’t master,” I mean that I couldn’t get a straight A on anything. My average score was probably around an 84, which isn’t bad, but for me that was a death sentence.  My neck would be long-divided, my head would roll away at an 120-degree angle only to stop at the vertices between Shitty and Shittier. And my father would stand, wielding the calculator as the instrument of my downfall.

My father, after a murderous rampage.

In high school, things became worse. I constantly had a B or a B- in math my freshman year. It came to the point where I dreaded doing math homework–I would forget how satisfying it was to solve a problem correctly. I would psych myself out before tests and do miserably. I would read questions wrong, accidentally write the wrong number, write the answer backwards, forget to put a decimal point or an x. Sophomore year, when my parents separated, I purposely did bad in math. I thought failing math would make my father pay attention to me. Boy, was I wrong. He continued to ignore me and in my third trimester of sophomore year, I remembered how much I liked doing homework and liked getting good grades. The first two semesters of my sophomore year were the only times from 6-12th grade that I didn’t make honor roll, and I did it on purpose.

A girl receiving a Wedgie
I'm surprised people weren't giving me these left and right.

Junior year of high school, I very quickly overcame my fear of math. I realized that all the mistakes I was making were self-induced. I was unconsciously sabotaging myself. I was so scared of math that I rushed through any tests I had, refusing to check my work because doing so was frightening. This change came with help from Ms. Rueter. She was an amazing teacher, who fully explained everything in a non-murderous way, who motivated me to show her I could improve, and who had an excellent sense of humor. If you can’t tell, I really admire this woman. She wrote one of my letters of recommendation to college, and also made me kind of love math (emphasis on “kind of”).

Ms. Rueter helped me so much my junior year that she even recommended I take AP Calculus senior year. I chuckled nervously at the prospect, and instead decided to take the much easier, much more practical AP Statistics. That class was riotous, I had a straight A in it, and I learned how to count cards. That teacher was also great, fabulous, and for the life of me, I can’t remember how to spell his name. As thanks, during the AP test, I drew a picture of the Von Trapp family hiking through the Alps of Switzerland singing. I couldn’t think of the answer, so a drawing seemed appropriate.

But this was a very real fear I had for a very long time. Numbers were intimidating. They were bouncers that kept me out of the A-Plus Math Club. They took the $100 bribes I stealthily handed them in the hugs at the door, then promptly turned me away anyway. They left me bruised, beaten, with no hope. Until Ms. Rueter came in and escorted me inside, where I found that doing math successfully is really quite fun.

And that is why, friends, next year I will be tutoring math full time to students in struggling schools.

My father, ambivalent to my successes.

10 thoughts on “Arithmophobia, or, Why Math Sucks (And is Also Awesome)

  1. NICE!
    I Just Did A Math-From-The-Past Type Bloggin’ing, Also!
    Thought You May Like It.
    They’re Very Different, So It’s Funnier AND More Of A “Kindred-spirit” Type Thing.
    The Fact You Can Tutor MATH Now Is Rather Neato-Torpedo, To Me.
    I KNOW Getting That Far With It Takes Plenty Of Time AND Patience.
    Cheers To Ya!

  2. Niece: Ah math. I was a math geek until I encountered Geometry. My left brain [or is it the right] couldn’t make sense of those blasted theorems and whatnot. Guess what? I teach math to seventh and eighth graders identified as special ed. Don’t let that fool ya. Many of them just need the content presented in a different fashion…and WALA! Pythagorean Theorem…LOL
    Enjoy your year tutoring math:)

  3. I fell behind on your blogs, so sorry. Oh my, eM Geeeee!! This killed me–as in standing, bopping at my computer, laughing/gasping…inner jogging quota fulfilled for the day. You put the sunshine back in my day. The photos were especially sweet, gotta say. Keep raisin’ the bar, girlio!

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