My earliest and most formative experiences with mathematics occurred at age 5*.
The first occurred on the playground, when I discovered that a teeter-totter, when utilized by two children whose size and mass are not equal, is quickly transformed into a catapult. (True to form, it took me several impromptu tests involving a fair few nosebleeds to realize that I needed a partner who was not a head taller and 30 pounds heavier. SCIENCE!)
The second occurred in the form of a worksheet, which still haunts my worst nightmares.
Having never been a teacher, I cannot speak to pedagogical technique. However, in my experience of being a student, my working hypothesis is that when teachers need a break, or are just burned out, they give their students worksheets.
Math problems are baffling. And without any instructions beyond a surly “fill this in, you little bastards,” math problems are especially baffling. Even if the instructions are encoded in the problem itself, unless you’ve been taught what plus and minus signs are and how to deal with them, you won’t necessarily know it. And I certainly didn’t.
Neither of my parents had taught me math. My parents didn’t actively teach me much of anything, because they had jobs, not to mention — and can you believe it? — an entire, non-Gillian-centric world that required their time and attention. I wasn’t neglected, but neither was I cultivated. I was basically the philodendron of children: low-maintenance, surprisingly vigorous. People forgot about me for extended periods of time, during which I amused myself without complaint. Eventually, when they remembered that I existed, they were relieved to discover that I was still alive.
Although my mother assures me that all children, even “surprises” like me, are precious blessings from God, she also believes that telling them so on a regular basis does not bode well for the development of their character…so my only means of self-assessment was my teachers’ opinions, which were that I was weird and not girly enough. I’m also part of a different generation — one for whom play didn’t involve “enrichment activities” or boosting my IQ and/or EQ through multi-media educational platforms. Basically, if toddler-me wanted to spend an entire day splashing water on myself or poking at the ground with a stick (both of which I highly recommend), it was not a source of panic to my elders, and certainly not a reason to get me assessed and diagnosed with something. My mother just used it as an opportunity to get $#!+ done, mostly. Meanwhile, I learned to read, because there happened to be books lying around.
School was a different story. School forced me to do things that made no sense, like learning to sit cross-legged in a circle, singing songs while picking up child detritus (as preparation for parenthood, or a chain gang, or what?), and not using my dominant hand because the left hand is the “bad hand.” (I still can’t operate any pair of scissors. True story.) It also introduced me to my first existential crisis, in the form of 1 + 0 = __
And thus, school was where I first confronted the terrifying vastness of the universe.
I was full of questions, which I could barely articulate and which I doubt my teachers would have answered anyway, since they’d made it clear that they did not appreciate “kids with smart mouths.” Did the 1 dominate the zero, canceling it out? Or did the 0 swallow up the 1 like a giant black hole, leaving nothing behind? Or did they somehow coexist peacefully as the number 10? I could not wrap my five-year-old brain around this conundrum, which was a pity, because it was only the first problem of about 25 similar questions (or, given my inability to subitize, about a million zillion hundred questions). And, sensing a pattern, I knew that 2 + 0, 3 + 0, 4 + 0, and so on posed precisely the same difficulties as its predecessors.
My teacher, whom I privately referred to as Mrs. Rhinoceros because it was as close as I could get to the real pronunciation of her surname (for some reason, people who specialize in early childhood education tend to have long and consonant-heavy names) was not best pleased, because it put her in the awkward position of having to decide whether or not to actually do some teaching. Ultimately, she opted not to, but she resented that my efforts had even raised the possibility.
“What do you mean you don’t understand? How stupid are you?” she shouted.
Not everyone who becomes a teacher is happy in his or her work. You may have guessed as much already.
Anyway, Mrs. Rhinoceros made me stay inside during lunch and recess to finish my worksheet. She even shut off the lights and shut the door. I am not sure of the reasoning behind this, but we may have been in the midst an energy crisis at the time; to me, it served as an effective reminder that, as a benighted and ignorant child, I was destined to labor in darkness, both literal and metaphorical, all the days of my life. You may not be surprised to learn that I didn’t make any progress on the worksheet. I simply sat there, unable to see the paper in front of me through my tear-filled eyes, chewing my pencil end down to its graphite core like a neurotic beaver. I did this until I heard the rest of the class coming back from recess, at which point I quickly filled in an alternating pattern of zeroes and ones.
Meanwhile, I hid behind Silver Burdett & Ginn, whose policy of updating its giant textbooks is on a par with the Catholic Church’s revisions of canon law. Judging by the illustrations, the company had made only grudging concessions to Brown v. Board of Education with the inclusion of Beth, the sole African-American child in the K-5 learning universe. (As I recall, Juan came later, and was typically on the losing end of most word problem transactions involving glasses of lemonade and erasers.)
I used to think about Silver, Burdett, and Ginn and imagine what they were like. Silver was no-nonsense and by the book; he had read many modern (post-1873) treatises on The Proper Education of the American Child and was prepared to use them. Burdett was old — and curmudgeonly. His jaw probably creaked when he opened his mouth, like an unoiled door hinge. Ginn was the insouciant and disreputable black sheep of the group, who had to be included but whose influence had to be strictly monitored and, if necessary, curtailed. I decided I liked Ginn; he was a loose cannon, and I am a fan of loose cannons.
But not even Ginn could help me when it came to learning my times tables or, worst of all, figuring out word problems such as “if pencils cost 10 cents and you buy nine pencils, how much change will you receive if you give the cashier one dollar?”**
To this dark period of my life, I’ll add one further note: as a fourth grader, in what was quite possibly the nadir of my mathematical education, I had to learn an arithmetic “rap.”
Subtract, Compare, Bring Down,
Start all over again…
Unless hip hop has somehow passed you by during the past 35 years, you will have perhaps noticed that this is not rapping. It is, more or less, a haiku; doubtless if it had been National Poetry Month (April) at the time, this “rap” might have doubled as our English lesson for the day.
My math education was bad and continued to be bad, until one day, it became absolutely terrible. That day coincided with my first lesson in high school algebra, which started out bad because an upperclassman stole my graphing calculator (resulting in my teacher literally screaming at me for not, despite my best efforts, having a graphing calculator) and went downhill from there, until one of my classmates actually jumped out a window to escape. (She was fine; in fact, to this day, she’s pretty awesome.)
The best grades I ever achieved in math were in the first semester of my sophomore year of high school, when I took geometry. It wasn’t because, as my long-suffering algebra teacher claimed, “people who struggle with algebra are often good at geometry.” I was as bad at geometry as I was at algebra, which apparently is very rare***. The difference was that my geometry teacher had something that my previous teachers had lacked: a brain tumor. Happily, her cancer was in remission. Unhappily (for her, at least), her tumor had interfered with her short-term memory. As a result, she had trouble remembering who was who and whether that person had gone to the bathroom one, four, or eight times during the class period. As a heartless teenager, I exploited this mercilessly, attending…well, I don’t the know the percentage of classes, because I’m terrible at math. But for an entire marking period, she thought I was someone else, someone good at math. It was glorious. It couldn’t last: soon, she figured out that I was the moron who couldn’t count to twenty if I wasn’t wearing flip-flops and my winning season ended in crushing defeat almost as abruptly as it had begun.
I dropped math after my junior year, having fulfilled the basic requirements for graduation. While the guidance counselor (who, I later learned, had actually dropped out of college, though she later returned to complete her studies) proclaimed that dropping math meant no institution of higher learning would ever have me, I felt certain that scraping a D+ in pre-pre-calculus would have much the same effect on admissions counselors.**** It was one of the happiest days of my life, saying “screw you, I’ll take a science elective instead” and then — after underoing the obligatory disciplinary procedures put in place for saying ‘screw you’ to a member of staff — spending a semester dissecting pickled marine life*****.
Since high school, I have avoided math, except for one college course: “Mathematics as Art,” which was neither mathematical or artistic, and — totally coincidentally — was taught by a diminutive, mustachioed Mark Twain doppelganger who happened to be the brother of one of my fella’s math professors, who taught at a different school. Speaking of my fella, he’s a math major who became a math teacher before turning to librarianship and amuses himself with recreational math — in other words, math for fun. That is a thing. And, perhaps, also my penance for being the worst math student in the history of American education.
The thing is, I wish I did understand mathematics, because it’s important and — often, at least according to Nova — quite elegant. But the math-oriented regions of my brain appear to have been colonized by other loci, its neurons enslaved by random trivia involving tie-in novelizations of films based on graphic novels based on video games’ “expanded universes,” its synapses clogged by potential read-alikes for the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, based on appeal factors.
P.S. If only I’d had this. Alas, too late. But I still want to go to there.