The Summer I Kicked Math’s Ass

Mathematics is a subject that has always hung over my head, proverbially speaking.

You see, being “bad” at math is a trend in my family. Not one single person in my entire family line will admit to being able to comprehend, or at least get through, math. Well, there might be one, though she tends to not admit to being bad at anything. A trait I admire.

It was always a requirement that I do well in my classes and I did, which generally meant I did the bare minimum. Math, though, was a free pass. All I had to do was pass so I could graduate. No one questioned whether I would be able to understand. It is a fact. It’s genetic. It’s expected. I think there is even an subconscious relief that none of us, my six cousins and I — who are more like siblings — ever questioned this family trait, as even high school diplomas are scarce.

My problems with math have never been a lack of understanding, but instead I suffer from a lack of patience and a low frustration tolerance level that can quickly lead to rage and defeat. I don’t have time to write out a page of numbers to solve one problem. I don’t understand the logic of a subject which will outcry against finding the square root of a negative number, yet lead to a path of imaginary numbers, all the while espousing the mantra of “precision” and “consistency.” Not to mention a field which cares so much about the placement of an equal sign at the front of the problem that a chunk of each class period is dedicated to illustrating it.

Math class was everything about the world I hated. It forced conformity, it is wildly inconsistent and full of exceptions yet continues to be touted as simple, routine and “perfectly conformed.” What the fuck is that even? It was also the class where anyone who did anything differently, say having the audacity to do equations in your head, was outcasted and shunned. At least that was my experience. One that I carried with me for 27 years.

It was this summer that I decided I was no longer going to allow myself to think I was bad at math. For the first time, I was going to try. I was going to sit down and learn the system. I would line up my equal signs, I would write out each step, and I would be the loudest, visibly fat genderqueer I could be while doing it. And it worked. I should finish out this term with an A in intermediate algebra. I can find a vertex form, I know the quadratic formula by heart, I can even graph a freakin’ parabola. It seems the only thing stopping me was the accepted notion that I couldn’t do it.

Which is not to say everyone is going to be like me, and there are legitimate reasons why other people can’t learn it, as there are reasons not to learn math at all. However, for me, it was a profoundly radical act. Not only was I bucking back against the preconceived notion that I was unable to perform mathematical functions because I am perceived as a woman, but that as a poor person I would never need to use math unless I had to count back change for my minimum wage job. I feel like opportunities have opened up to me that I never would have encountered before.

Y’all, I could be an electrical engineer. I could make robots.

The scope of my universe expanded in ways I didn’t even predict. When I talk about how much I dislike the overly complicated nature of math, I know I’m speaking from a place of someone knowledgeable, not of someone who is simply “afraid of the beast.” When I encounter yet another person who speaks to me in a condescending manner because I “obviously don’t know math,” I can pop back at them leaving jaws dropped in my wake. I no longer have to live by societal rules. I am not bound by my inability.

I feel a great accomplishment with the end of this term. I feel inspired to be everything I want. I feel powerful and capable and Badass. I realize everyone’s experience with math isn’t going to be the same. Perhaps even I am alone in the impression that women, especially those living below the poverty line, are regarded as not being competent in math. Even if it was just a limitation in my own head, having conquered it is super amazing and important to my life. I even came to the personal conclusion that math in school (when I was in HS, oh, 14+ years ago, the common phrase was “why do I need to learn this? I’ll never use it!”) is about creating a base line of infinite possibilities. Perhaps one won’t use math in their life, and I was disgruntled about being forced to learn more worthless shit that was never going to apply in my future, but it gives a greater chance for the opportunity to present itself.

By not learning algebra, I had a hand in perpetuating the notion that class mobility wouldn’t happen. That if I was learning, it was only because I wanted to move socio-economic class and betray the only world I knew. I was agreeing I was worthless and incapable of anything more. Math is part of building a lifeline out of that situation for me.

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About Mx. B

My preferred pronouns are: they, their, them.
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