Taming My Fear of Math Meant Confronting my Ego

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a secret fear that people don’t think I’m very smart.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Between my fundamental “Christian” upbringing and six years of public schooling in rural Arkansas, I wasn’t exposed to much mathematical thinking. My mother, who was my sole educator from kindergarten until the end of fifth grade, said she had always been bad at math and it was probably genetic. She never even tried to teach me the multiplication tables, but, in all fairness, I don’t think she’d ever learned them either.

At the same time, outside of my little bubble, Teen Barbie was claiming that “math class is tough!” as girls scores and participation in STEM began to plummet.

Some of my first experiences in public school centered around my unfamiliarity with numbers. My fifth grade teacher ridiculed me so viciously in front of the class that I still have a little hesitation to raise my hand when I have a math question today, and it’s been over twenty years since that humiliation!

Eventually, I gave up on math. I threw out my childish dreams of becoming a scientist after realizing that they would be impossible without it. With some combination of shame, stubbornness, and anger, I eliminated math from my life in every way possible. I didn’t play games that involved math. I didn’t do simple math in my head. I didn’t think mathy thoughts, period.

And, in a lot of ways, that worked fine for a long while. With the rise in popularity of cell phones (got my first one at nineteen, ya’ll) and technology at large, it didn’t seem like I would ever be more than a few feet from a computer that could do calculations for me. Besides, I scored well above average in other areas, and I read books like they had recently been invented. I thought being well read would make up for other deficiencies. I didn’t see all the ways my choice was shaping my life, and I didn’t want to.

When I made the decision to go back to college (in my thirties) a few semesters ago, it was with the intention to get my degree in communication. I had been doing (minor) freelance writing for a few years and thought I could make a career of it if I only had a degree to pad my resume.

But, within the first semester I changed my mind. It all started when I asked myself one simple question: have you ever tried your hardest?

My answer was no. I had changed the course of my own life to avoid challenge because I was scared. I was scared of how hard it might be, but even more than that I was terrified of looking stupid in front of anyone.

So I made a goal for myself that is so preposterous I lower my voice a little when saying it out loud. A goal so outlandish that I’m afraid you, my dear reader, might bust out laughing at the thought of it — the podunk kid with the fundamentalist Christian background, who didn’t even believe in evolution, aspiring to be a bioengineer, ha!

(Or worse, you might believe in me and I might disappoint you.)

But nothing could be academically worse than depriving myself the fundamental language of our universe. Nothing could be worse than wallowing in my fear and ignorance and “what-if” for another two decades.

Math is not hard, learning is hard. Growing is hard. Challenging our own beliefs is hard.

I believed that, because math wasn’t easy for me, I should concentrate on things that came more naturally. The opposite is true, I should have concentrated more on them so they didn’t grow into disabling conditions.

Any part of yourself that you neglect will atrophy. The same is true of your mind. If you don’t practice mathematical thinking at all, like I didn’t, you’ll be as clumsy as a drunken toddler the first time you try.

Over the summer, as I began to struggle in my trig class, I attended hours and hours of rehab in the form of free tutoring from my college. I showed up early to ask other students how they solved equations or proved identities. I took any help that was offered, even when it came from the high school kid sitting in my row.

On my way to the train one night after class a fellow student said to me “there’s still time to drop if you’re worried about failing”. I smiled at him and said that wouldn’t be necessary, I was pretty confident I could keep my A. “You’ve got an A in trig?!” he said without attempting to hide his incredulity.

Yeah, asking for all that help really payed off, even if I didn’t “look smart” doing it.