I hate math. Hate it.
"Maybe it feels the same way," my 13-year-old son math genius said, when I lamented outloud.
"I wouldn't blame it," I replied. "I've done nothing but badmouth it since I was 12 years old."
That's about the time it started. Pre-algebra. I'm okay with arithmetic, even solving for basic variables. But give me rational expressions, and my brain just kind of shuts down. I'll struggle through the homework, think I have it, and totally bomb a test. The problem is that I never really seem to get why I was wrong. For years my math grades were comprised almost entirely of partial credit.
College algebra is part of the reason I never graduated. Only part, I stress, because I know damn well that my choices had a lot to do with it. But when I was already inclined to blow off class and get into some other trouble, it was all too easy to blame my mutual hatred of algebra for keeping me from doing what I needed to do.
Mathilde, who teaches college math, had this to say in the course of our discussion:
It's true that there are many different levels on which one can "get" it, and you can feel like you've gotten it when you still really have a fairly superficial understanding. (It's a bit like the difference between being able to drive a car vs. being knowing how to fix the engine when it breaks.)
Of course I have some professional expertise here, but lately I've been thinking about this on a whole different level as I watch the different ways that my son and daughter approach math. They're both good at it, but they have totally different reactions when they hit a wall. It's really driven home for me how important it is to PLAY with it, look at a problem from all different angles, see what you CAN figure out even if you don't know how to get all the way to an answer. Don't be afraid to fuck it up, because you learn the most from coming to understand HOW you fucked up, and how to fix it. There are a zillion different ways to approach any particular math topic, and the more of them you explore, the more solid your overall understanding will be. I really believe that that willingness to get your hands dirty and engage with it is far more predictive of success than whatever your innate talent may or may not be.
Don't be afraid to fuck it up, because you learn the most from coming to understand HOW you fucked up, and how to fix it. I really believe that that willingness to get your hands dirty and engage with it is far more predictive of success than whatever your innate talent may or may not be.
Best. Advice. Ever.
It's how I try to live every other part of my life, so why the hell would I let this be my undoing? Why would it be okay to let a required math class or two be the one thing that could stand in the way of completing the degree necessary to move my life forward?
Had I graduated from college in 1994 as originally planned, I would've likely gone on to work in my originally-chosen field—Mass Communications. I would probably have still married DH, though we would've been living a different life. I very well might not have had the boys I have, who could only have been who they are because they were conceived in their respective moments. I might have something different and just as wonderful, but it wouldn't be Max and Tricky, without whom I can't imagine my life.
Just because I didn't get what I'd planned, just because my journey took a different path than anyone anticipated for me, that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile or in any way less than what I'd envisioned. In so many ways, I am more fulfilled as a woman and a soul than I ever thought possible.
I have the very real task of learning the skills necessary to get a real job, to take care of me and my boys. I have to relearn a lot of things I should've mastered a long time ago. To choose not to do it is to be ungrateful, again, for the opportunities I've been given and have made for myself.
So I can't be afraid to fuck it up. I will likely fuck it up. But I will choke down the disappointment and dust my hands off and try again. I will look closely at what I did wrong, which variable threw me off, and I will try it again and again and again until I can pass these tests. Maybe not with flying colors, but certainly with far more knowledge and insight than I had when I started.
And on the other side? There's an entirely different life ahead of me. It's not where I thought I'd be, not where I originally dreamed of being. But it will be goddamn good, because I got dirty and fought like hell to make it that way. I'll still struggle with math. I'll still catch my breath at the sight of a polynomial, and sometimes it will remind me of what my intentions had been when I was 20.
Then I'll remind myself that here and now is the only place I can live—not then and certainly not when. And I'll know that I can, because I bulldozed my own walls and powered through to an unexpected and promising future.