My oldest daughter started kindergarten this year, and among all the little papers she brings home, I’ve noticed a few math worksheets. Her class is working on addition and subtraction, patterns, and shapes. Long before Megan brought home her first math worksheet, my husband asked me to make a promise: I am not to sabotage my daughter’s math education by complaining about the difficulties of the subject or talking about my own struggles with math.
It’s a reasonable request. Math is hard enough when attempted without any bias. I don’t want my daughter to start her school career with preconceived ideas that she might struggle with math, that girls can’t do math, or that math is unreasonably difficult. Yet even in kindergarten, when an occasional poorly worded question pops up on one of my daughter’s math pages (who writes those things anyway?), my old frustrations rise and it’s hard not to spout a few choice words. Math remains a sensitive subject for me nearly 16 years after finishing high school.
Arithmetic is an old enemy. My report cards from second grade have teacher comments in the margins stating, “Rachael needs to gain confidence.” In third grade, where students at my school went to different teachers for each subject, my math teacher initially suggested I might have a learning disability but ruled it out when she saw my good grades in all other subjects.
I went on to attend a small Catholic high school where I had the same math teacher for three out of four years. She was competent, patient, and encouraging, but the subject never got easier. I have countless memories of sitting in class and blinking back tears of frustration as I tried to solve problems. I sniffled so much I sounded like I had a perpetual cold in that class. Homework in the evenings was worse. If I understood the examples given in class, I would find the problems in my homework to be of a different, more difficult nature and I had no one to help me. (Again, who writes those dang math worksheets and textbooks?)
When I went to college, I majored in English. My degree required just one math class, and I took a basic math competency exam to test out of it. My academic adviser told me I still had to take a science class in place of the math class, which was fine with me. I like science as long as it isn’t mathy like chemistry or physics. So I signed up for environmental conservation and did experiments with freshwater shrimp.
My husband claims math never came easy to him either, but he took advanced classes I would never touch and he still remembers how to solve algebraic equations. He tries to encourage me. “You do algebra every day without realizing it,” he says. “I’ve seen you do it when you go grocery shopping.” It’s true that algebra helps when determining which brand of peanut butter is the best deal, but I usually cheat and look at those helpful little cost-per-ounce figures on the price stickers.
My struggles are partly genetic. My mother and maternal grandmother both harbor ill will toward the subject. Grandma says her mind just does not work that way. She nods with understanding when I tell her I feel like I’ve hit a mental brick wall when I try to think mathematically. We exacerbate our struggles by speaking negatively about math. We also perpetuate the stereotype schools are trying to counteract these days: the idea that girls can’t do arithmetic. That’s why my husband has sworn me to silence.
My daughter has my genes, and given her interests and aptitudes, she’ll probably experience some frustration with this subject in the future. However, it will not be because I have disparaged it and my own abilities in front of her. It takes a lot of discipline to rein in the snarky comments when the worksheets come out. It would feel so good to vent about a badly written, unhelpful explanation in a textbook or a poorly constructed word problem. But I’ll keep my mouth shut and only say the bad things in my head. And my husband? I’ll let him handle all homework questions.
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