Math and Me: A Love Story, Eventually

Summer, 1989.

On an August afternoon, dressed unseasonably (but typically) in black with combat boots, I wait, 18 and clueless, for one of the DePaul University academic advisors to call my name. I figure that when she does, I'll follow her to her office, half-listen while she uses academic jargon I don't understand, throw some darts at a course listing on a wall, and choose the classes for the first quarter of my freshman year of college. By this point in the summer, I've already been miserably heartbroken by a boy, moved back to Chicago after two years of western-suburban exile, and chickened out of majoring in Jazz Studies. Declare a major? Uh, sure; whatcha got? Spanish? Fine. (Fast-forward four weeks to me panicking when I learn that four years of high school Spanish does not mean I am prepared to read an untranslated Love in the Time of Cholera.)

Everything is going by this carefully-crafted plan (ooh! Sociology of Rock Criticism?! I spend half my waking hours reading rock criticism--sign me up!), until our meeting is interrupted by the advisor's colleague. She beckons my advisor over, and they have a quiet conference behind a file folder that's in the interrupter's raised hand. I hear fragments: "....the student we talked about this morning...you think so?...he's in the office today, right?" My advisor turns her head and gives me the ten-second version of what I later learn was a months-long process for my peers, involving invitations and applications and interviews in business suits: "We'd like you to talk with our Associate Dean about maybe being in the Honors Program." DePaul has an Honors Program? Huh. I shrug, nod in agreement, and am ushered to a tiny waiting area.

I contemplate my academic record as I wait. I do just fine in the subjects I've been told (and I believe) I'm "naturally" good at, like languages and music. But on the other hand, good heavens, I am most definitely not a math person. Publicly, I feign indifference to anything remotely math-y, but that's really a defense, a front. Inside I feel like kind of a dunce. I'm not proud of that tenth-percentile math score on my ACT report, so I think about how well I did in reading and writing. I think about the writing I did on my college application and my placement exams. I consider my strengths and discount my math weakness, thinking, What on Earth will I ever use math for as an adult, anyway?

The Associate Dean and I shake hands and enter his office, which is adorned with books and more books and a large, framed Brooklyn Dodgers team photo. The desk he sits behind seems massive, and when I take a seat in front of it, I feel like Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann on Sesame Street: a teeny-tiny girl in an oversized chair, in an oversized world I'm not prepared for. I watch the professor skim the pages in my file. In time, he sits back, gives a congenial smile, and, with a tone of mock bewilderment, addresses me in a voice that's both gentle and unmistakably New York:

"I'm not sure why your file was overlooked when invitations to apply for the Honors Program were sent out, Tracy. You have many strengths. You're an excellent math student, for example."

Wait. What?!? Did he just say that I'm... There's silence for a second as I scan his expression for any sign that he's off his rocker, and then glance at his file folder to ensure he's got the right student. By the time I've confirmed that he is not, indeed, insane, he's already chuckling. Could he be...yes, he is absolutely MOCKING ME AND MY MATH STUPIDITY. In the next moment, I'm right there with him, cracking up over my laughable performance. My laughter is a form of that feigned indifference. My nonchalant attitude sidesteps any discussion about the prospect of me improving these skills. It lays the subject to rest before it's ever raised: "No, I don't care."

Most of all, my laughter is indicative of the habitual, self-deprecating, and completely socially acceptable humor that so many "non-math" people possess about their lack of skills. I laugh with the joke so there's no room to look or feel hurt. But by being in on the joke together, the good professor and I are colluding in reinforcing the widely-held (in the U.S., at least) belief that math ignorance is more or less okay, that one can practice a lifelong aversion to and avoidance of the subject, without too many negative consequences.

Pause to think for a moment; had I been a math whiz with low reading and writing scores, would the professor have made a similar joke about my literacy? Would he have dared to say, "You're very a very good writer, for example," and then laughed? Of course not. And even if he had, I'm sure I wouldn't have gone along with the joke.

Summer, 2008

Thankful for the break from caring for my newborn and my toddler, I walk into a classroom for the first time since getting my master's in social work, years eariler. I know I want to teach, I think I want to teach secondary ed, and one of the subjects I want to teach is biology. I've always loved it and there's a demand for good science teachers in underserved communities. Before I can go very far in my biology coursework, though, I must first deal with math, and that's what I'm here at Oakton College for this semester.

The placement test I took a few weeks ago tells me that my first baby step is Math 060, Elementary Algebra, a "developmental" math course one must take to work up to college credit-level classes. My prediction is that math aversion, and even hatred, will abound in this class, and I'm not wrong. First off, the class meets for 16 weeks on Friday nights, for heaven's sake. Second, those of us present didn't exactly get here because of our enthusiasm for math. Still, every week I show up, and I complete every assigned homework problem on the days between classes. I want to see if I can do this, want to see what I might really be made of, math-wise. And, most importantly, I'm starting to love what I'm doing.

In a happy coincidence, during this same period I discover the research and writings of psychologist Carol Dweck. She tells me that my "mindset" about math skills, a mindset shared by so many others, is "fixed." It reflects a belief that intelligence and competence in a subject are traits that a person is born with. You either have them, or you don't. You're an excellent math student, for example, or you're not. She tells me that I'm far more likely to be successful if I cultivate a "flexible" mindset instead, if I believe that math intelligence and ability are the results of consistent hard work and committment to learning. I must dispel of the notion that there are "math people," and then there are the rest of us. And perhaps most importantly, she tells me that I should make darned sure to communicate this to my kids (both my children and my students), too.

My timid step into basic algebra is really just the first element of a perfect storm that gains momentum over the next two years. In one class, I experience the thrill of solving a hard problem with a classmate, fist-bumping and cheering like we're at a football game. I keep getting A's. I find what I call my "Zen math zone," the antidote to crazy days as a stay-at-home-parent. I go to the coffee shop, put on the headphones, and tackle math problems for hours, relishing the feeling of being so focused. I do math every day.

The classes get harder, but one semester after the next, I keep going, long past the point necessary to take those chemistry and biology classes that were my impetus in the first place. And you know what? I never do take those classes. I now know that I want to teach math, eventually deciding on middle school, where I can teach the other subjects I'm passionate about, too.

To integral and multivariate calculus, to number theory and linear algebra, I say, "Bring it on." Things get really crazy when, on a suggestion from my math mentor at Oakton, I write an essay about my math awakening that wins a statewide award and scholarship. In that essay, I write about my intent to teach math so that others, too, may come to understand that math's not scary, it's not something out of their reach, and it's not that they're "not math people."

Lucky, lucky me, now in 2015. On a daily basis, I get to impart Carol Dweck's important message, the one I've internalized, to my tutoring students and their parents: You can do math. With consistent work, you will become better and better at it, I promise. I'm still working on it, too, so let's do this together. And I tell my "math story," time and again, hoping to encourage others--all others, parents, students, teachers, the math-averse--to test the math waters. I'll be there to cheer you on!