How I'm unlearning high school: algebra

The first time I remember my body stiffening in a math’s classroom was with the introduction of the alphabet into what I had understood as a purely numerical system. I’m talking about algebra and those ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘x’ symbols that suddenly appeared. Like this:

ax2 + bx + c = o

Although it was probably someting more straightforward initially, like this:

x + 5 = 7

Ugh, my skin crawls just writing that stuff down…

In any case, my shock at having letters competing with numbers for space set off a ringing in my ears. My brain struggled to make words out of the combinations in front of me but nothing worked. I couldn’t sound out the syllables into anything comprehensible. My mind went into freeze mode, fog horns and lights blaring with one simple question: ARE YOU WORDS OR NUMBERS?

I don’t remember whether the teacher addressed this conundrum, or whether they even recognised it as one as such, but it was relatively clear by the end of the class that we were expected to take this and run with it. So I ran. Home. And probably didn’t open my math book again until the next class. But there it was, sitting belligerently on the page. Numbers and letters together. Like some screaming mess of a foreign language that caused my eyes to twitch. Dutifully I copied the forms down from the board and put letters in the spaces accorded to them by the teacher and put numbers across from them in an unholy dalliance, but without any sense of connection to them. I was numb.

ARE YOU WORDS OR NUMBERS. I couldn’t get passed that first riddle.

And then. And THEN. Not only were there indecipherable words made out of numbers and letters but then came words to describe those indecipherable words; words such as variables, constants, coefficients, operators, exponents. Which, looking back, at least sounded functional and somewhat mathematical. What really threw me, though, was when the teacher began using words like terms and expressions to refer to parts of a maths problems. AS IF THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT LANGUAGE. NOT MATHEMATICS.

That was the beginning of a slow, downward spiral of confusion and hyperventilating self-doubt. I would watch as my friends trotted through their equations, seemingly nonplused by the chaotic arrangements in front of them. I copied their homework when I could and tried not to let on that I was completely overwhelmed. There were times that I even managed to work out problems by myself. But it involved an incredible amount of concentration. The only way I can describe it is as if I had my eye pressed up against the very small opening to a very long telescope that I was using to study the stars with, only the stars were moving at hyperspeed and I was only allowed to use the telescope in intervals of 15 seconds. If I squinted intensely and held my breath, I might be able to lock on to one of the stars as they flashed by and make a mental note of its location. But once it was gone, it was gone.

So there it was. The insurmountable block. Four years of torture in high school until I changed schools and discovered that for the final two years, math was not a pre-requisite subject. I joyfully enrolled in everything else but that (science I clung to for another year before throwing in the towel).

So how to re-enter that circle? Or, perhaps better put, how to redefine my relationship with mathematics? Well, I guess finding a way to make peace with the rowdy union of letters and numbers is a good place to start.

Unlearning High School is 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. Commiserations on shared high school suffering also welcome.