I was 32. I’d long suspected something was wrong, but this was a diagnosis meant for a child, not a grown woman. After eight weeks of embarrassing testing and observation, my assessment advisor delivered my results. He opened a fat file, pulled out a report, and asked what I wanted to hear first.
“I’ll take the bad news. I guess.”
“The bad news is, you have a learning disability.”
“What’s the good news?”
“The good news is, you have a learning disability.”
I didn’t expect to cry. Not at my age, and not in front of this man. But I did. All those years of being told I wasn’t trying hard enough in math, wasn’t paying attention, was daydreaming, was NOT LISTENING, didn’t care enough, was being dramatic, difficult, lazy — all those negative messages about math sunk in and contaminated my confidence. All of it.
Then the assessor, whose name was George, said, “I want to show you something.” It was a graph with numbers. Verbal and comprehension scores that reflected my ability to perform complex language-based analogies and logical reasoning. I scored high. George asked if anyone had worked with me when I was a kid to develop what was (according to his fat report) a huge strength. No, I said. Not that I could remember. “Probably no one noticed because everyone was hyper-focused on your math weakness.”
I wish George had lit a cigarette for us and maybe played some Beck, because what he was about to say was so personal, so honest. He wasn’t the type of Learning Disability Advisor who ran around saying this to all the girls. George was different. “Truth is,” he said, brushing the hair from my posterior parietal cortex, “No tutor, no professor, no teacher in the world could ever have made you better at math.”
I’m sorry. What? What are you saying, George?
He showed me a graph of how my brain processes information (specifically working memory) and showed me the disconnect. “It’s like trying to cross from one mountain cliff to another,” he said. “It can’t be done without a bridge. You have no bridge, Anastasia.”
I walked out of his office in a fog. Decades of tears, of arguing with my dad when he tried to help me, the disappointed teachers, the parade of bad grades, the “shows little/no improvement” comments — I took them all to heart. I had been taught, effectively, to think the worst of myself: I was either really dumb or really lazy. I knew I wasn’t lazy because I tried SO hard. That left me, as a kid, to believe I was stupid. When really, all that time, I had no bridge.
Math is good. Math is important. Let’s all give math a hug. But we’re doing it wrong. We’re spending the first two decades of human development drilling kids with questions like: “If Johnny has 7 pancakes and Billy has 19, how many cats can they fit in a bag?” When what we should be asking is: “If Johnny is black, and Billy is white, how much more likely is it that Johnny will be shot by a policeman?”
Algebra and empathy. Both are important, but only one should be a required skill for moving forward in life. How often do you use quadratic equations to solve conflicts in team meetings? And yet algebra is treated as a necessary, indispensable, deeply important life skill. If we were a tribal culture we’d send our young men into the wilderness with a pencil and tell them not to come back until they can divide integers.
Raise your hand if your child feels tyrannized by abstract math. Raise your hand if you think our society would be better served if we spent more time learning skills that solve real-life problems — like finance, budgeting, and the ultimate life-skill: How not to be an asshole.
Kids can quit school when they’re 16. We have precious little time to shape young minds and we’re blowing it. Americans don’t know how to communicate their wants and needs without shooting each other or beating their wife. Trump is president because his suggestion to knock the crap out of people either appeals to voters, or it doesn’t bother them. Both indicate a diseased American mindset.
We are not a dysfunctional society because we lack algebra skills, we are dysfunctional because we’ve never been systematically taught how to respond to problems without anger.
Here’s an idea: Since teaching impractical math takes up a lot of time, make it elective rather than mandatory. You math brains can go for it! Dive head first into those proofs, then go to college and build us a rocket to the moon. Teachers can use precious class time to teach practical math, such as personal finance. Most of us need time to nail the basics, time we’re not getting because teachers are under pressure to meet standards that require all students (regardless of aptitude) to master advanced mathematics.
Well-to-do parents, you’re lucky. You can afford years of private tutors for your kid. Or maybe your kid picks up math the way a sponge picks up water or a dog takes to a bone. Lucky again. The rest of us raffle losers end up quitting school over math, or we don’t go to college because the advanced math requirement is a huge barrier. In 2010, a national U.S. Department of Education study found that 80 percent of high school dropouts cited their inability to pass Algebra I as the primary reason for leaving school.