How I'm unlearning high school: math

My mother tells me that I was very good at math and enjoyed it until I went to high school; the death of most, if not all, independent thinking. It’s true that I can’t remember my fear of numbers and formulas being particularly present until then. Then it came upon me like a huge wave in rough surf, hitting me in the face, knocking me off any meagre balance I had and pinning me to the ocean floor. My mother arranged tutoring but I would end up pretending I had understood just to stop the teacher talking. I remember once putting my name at the top of a math’s test and nothing else. Another time I wrote a poem, another time I drew a (very bad) elephant. Once the block was implanted there was nothing I could do.

I realised years later that what I was often experiencing were panic attacks that came upon me in the classroom, at the tutor’s house, in my bedroom trying to do my homework. But at the time, like many struggling students, I was viewed as ‘special’, slow, indifferent, lazy, ungifted, just not that smart. I gave up math class as soon as it became an elective, so relieved that I wouldn’t have to feel the humiliation anymore. And for years I didn’t miss it.

Then, somewhere in my adult years, I became aware that characters in the books I read were more appealing to me if they had a love for math. The ones that spring to mind are Smilla Jaspersen from Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and her veneration for Euclid’s Elements; Shevek in The Dispossessed, counting the number square in his mind; and Frances Montrose in Leaning Towards Infinity, scribbling her theories out into the gravel of a car park in Greece. It was the more abstract thinkers and the less straightforward ones that appealed to me; the ones who saw math as something beautiful, as a language, as something expansive, rather than reductive. I began to become interested in the history of mathematics (science too, but that’s another article or three) and the slow realisation that basic concepts I had been taught (and mostly not understood) had not always simply existed in human consciousness.

I also began to notice how the practical application of mathematics was a part of everday life. The table I sat at to write upon had been measured out according to the principles of geometry; the budget I drew up at the start of every month was based upon the decimal system, one of many different numeral systems through human history. And I began to want to understand how these things worked and where they came from. More than that, I wanted to feel part of something that I had shut myself off from for years.

I know now, as an adult, that humans learn in many different ways. Some people are more visual learners, some more kinetic, and so on. My method of learning has always been a bastard mix of these, but it has become clearer to me with time that the knowledge I still hold, competently, is that which I figured out myself. Like, literally sat there and figured out with paper and pen and/or internet.

I also know that if I can’t explain something to myself (let alone someone else), then I haven’t understood it properly. Being able to take information in and then externalise it is the key indicator that I’ve got it. Or at least some of it.

So here’s the goal. I want to unlearn school math and rewire my understanding and appreciation of it through a process of self-teaching. Expose my fear of it, de-fang it, reintegrate it into my world. And provide an ongoing, real-time narration of my thinking processes as I go along. Just for the hell of it. But also because I need to externalise it or it won’t stick.

And where better to start than with the first thing that scared the bejeesus out of me and left me cowering like a runt on the floor: that behemoth of all high schoolers’ nightmares. Algebra.

Unlearning High School will run as a series published every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Follow me if you want to unlearn with me or just see how I’m getting on. Comment if you have any tips or insight into the process.