Mutant vs. Math

On Tuesday, I sat down and met with a Transfer Advisor at the University. She reviewed all of my credits, did a degree audit for me, showed me the differences in required classes for the Bachelor of Art in Computer Science versus a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, and enrolled me in Pre-Calculus 1 which would be meeting in approximately an hour and a half in the building next door.

And just like that, I was a college student all over again.

This time, it’s different. Which is funny because when you’re younger everyone always tells you how everything is different when you a) are older b) are married c) have kids d) are not what you are right now. And for some reason (my guess would be lack of experience), you always fight against that belief. You roll your eyes and pfft “yeah right whatever” it off. Because we are just so damn sure of ourselves when we’re younger aren’t we?

I am terrified of math. And I am so annoyed that I am terrified of math because it is for a really stupid reason.

In my Catholic middle school, there was one math teacher for the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. I did not like her. She did not like me. Why a teacher would have a strong dislike for a heavily picked on, super nerdy, late-blooming, glasses-wearing, book-loving middle-schooler is beyond my scope of understanding. But she did.

The problem wasn’t even that she would grab me from my mom’s classroom (next to hers) after school and put me to clean up her classroom, check papers, and do other menial tasks even though she had three children of her own. It wasn’t even that she also made me do this during school hours despite the fact she gave the “better” tasks to the kids she liked.

The problem was she picked on me.

Yes. An adult. Picking on a middle schooler. I was picked on enough as it was by my classmates. Since the popular kids couldn’t be bothered to pick on me, it was the unpopular kids who had field days with me– belittling me, telling me I smelled, calling me names (Mary Magdalene was a favorite- if you’re Catholic you’ll get it), putting dirty drawings in my desk, asking me questions they knew I would be too naive to know the answer to and then laugh at my stupidity innocence. And this teacher? Not only did she do nothing to stop the behavior when it happened in her class, but she also did everything she could to show the world I was not a smart and obedient little girl but I was really just some overly doted on brat who was everyone’s favorite because she was a kiss-ass (her theory, not actual reality: see above nerdy/late-blooming description).

She did this especially well in her math class by exploiting my one fault– disorganization. She required all students maintain a math binder that was so tediously full of insanely ridiculous specifications, I didn’t even try. I gave up. I am horrible with that sort of anal-retentiveness. And so she took much delight in slashing my binders with red pens, making derisive comments in class about my craptastic mathematical abilities, and using me as an example of what not to do. When I would inevitably begin to cry she would scream at me that “Crying isn’t going to change anything” and to stop it right now I was being ridiculous. She’d storm out of her door, knock on my mother’s door (yes, in the middle of class), bring her into the classroom (yes, while all of the students were there) and scream at both of us about what a horrible little girl I was and what a drama queen and that in the real world this bullshit wouldn’t fly.

Now I don’t know if you remember, but the core of the mathematics you are going to use in high school and college are really laid out in Middle School. If you don’t get those concepts then, every other math class is an uphill war. When your math class (and seventh grade homeroom, joy) are torture sessions, you don’t learn much.

Somehow, I absorbed enough to not only not get anything lower than a C+ my entire time in Middle School, but I also scored a perfect score on my high school entrance exam– even in math. However, once I got into the classroom all of the practical application collapsed under the one crushing belief I had cultivated under Mean Math Teacher– I suck at math. High school math was a struggle and I took the easiest math classes I could manage and took the minimum requirements to graduate. In college, I picked a degree that would result in the fewest math requirements possible and even took advantage of a temporary loophole where an Intro to Microcomputers was counting for math credit. I took one actual math class in college (Finite) and passed it with the necessary C+.

Thirteen years later, I’m back at school. I’m starting off with Pre-Calculus. And I’m going to pass this class with higher than a C+. Because the fact is, I’m good with numbers. I crunch them all of the time. In other words, I am great at math. What I stumble on is nothing more than material I simply wasn’t taught because I was stuck with a teacher who cared more about fulfilling her sadistic desires than doing her damn job. And that is a really stupid reason to have difficulty in anything.

The first class was brutal. I was overwhelmed and slow and racing to keep up. When I went home, I overdosed on Khan Academy. Then I did some more the next day. On Thursday, I did the homework and except for a couple hiccups, I had no problem. At class last night, I was having no problem keeping up with the teacher. I even solved some problems ahead of her. Things are clicking. I know I need to do a lot of practice and I’m not entirely sure how I can get that practice (Khan is great but it’s missing stuff) but I’ll figure it out. I also have to kick the habit of getting panicked and frustrated when something doesn’t click right away and shut up the witchy voice that starts in on me.

So wish me some luck this semester and if you have any advice, tips, suggestions, etc. for the maths, I’d appreciate it. Because I would really like to say a big fat mental “F**k You, Mrs. Rodriguez” this semester. Pardon my French.

day 21

“Day 21” by Kimberlyswhimsy on Flickr


34 thoughts on “Mutant vs. Math

  1. It’s terrible what that teacher did to you. Good for you for overcoming it! I wonder, if your mom was her coworker if she had a beef with your mom that she took out on you? Pardon my armchair analysis. 🙂

    • My mom was meek and mild-mannered. But a lot of people have often been and continue to be threatened by her professionally because she is a really good teacher. My mom wondered for a long time if she herself was the culprit but later came to believe it had to do with the woman’s daughter who was a year younger than myself, quite smart and popular, but didn’t get the attention from the principal and certain other teachers that I did. So I don’t know what it was exactly but it sucked regardless.

  2. Student loan?

    Amazing that you can start with CAL1! I would have to go back to college algebra and work my way up.

    Why computer science? I would recommend MIS, it is a lot more business oriented and the math is easier.

    I got a degree in Information Systems and I work in consulting, basically software developement etc. Keep in mind you will compete with India, Phillipines and China. That means late hours and most of your work is usually managing offshore teams… that’s why i think business degree is better.

    Good luck!

    • No student loan. I work at a university so I can take up to two courses for free.

      It’s PRE-Cal 1 and I thought about going back to college algebra and then doing pre-cal but my adviser felt I could handle it.

      Why computer science? Because I’m really interested in programming and such things. I actually don’t like the idea of MIS because it’s so business oriented. I personally think there is plenty of room for innovation in technology here and would like to see what happens.

      Mostly, I’m just playing with it all. It’s free so I figure why not? I might end up hating it and switch to something else. This university requires you to choose a minor so once I settle on that, it might be my fall-back.

  3. I have BA and 2 MA’s and can’t do eighth grade algebra 1. The only way I got through statistics was because the test was given at 6PM Monday nights and since that was when the baseball game was the players took the test at noon and I had a copy for 5 hours ahead of time . I still managed only a D. In today’s high schools they are increasing the drop out rate because many teens just don’t have the ability to do college track math. For those of us so challenged they don’t understand that for us, numbers ability is a gift like being an artist or musician.

    • I’m being pretty stubborn with myself and forcing myself to do it and to grasp it. I think this is the side of the brain I don’t practice as much but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it. So I’m going to have to do a lot more side work than the rest of my classmates (who are all fresh out of high school) but I think I’ll be ok.

  4. Your middle school math teacher sounds horrible! I’m sorry you had to go through that.

    I used to love calculus, but have not used it in about ten years so I’m not much help on that front. But, from the description of your first week, it sounds like you’ll be alright. I did find that going to any extra help sessions (my calculus prof. would give extra class tutoring sessions every Wednesday night) was super helpful.

    Good luck!

    • I’ve been told by more than person that once I can get it to click, I’ll love Calculus. That it just all falls into place and is very nice to work with. We shall see! Calculus is mandatory whether I go BA or BS and to get there, I have to take like three pre-reqs including this one. So we’ll know soon enough whether or not this Mutant likes Calculus!! Yeah I’m hoping extra support starts opening up on campus or something. For now, I’m just trying to find stuff online.

  5. Difficult subjects always became easier to me once I could relate them back to the real world. Not only are you not being taught by an evil bullying teacher, but you have an extra 20 years of life experience to fall back on. I think you’re going to do awesome and you will enjoy your class. That is my prediction. Numbers are fun and god knows you’ve crunched thousands of them trying to get your financial life back into the black. If that’s not a ton of life experience to relate to, I don’t know what is.

    There is nothing to be afraid of..and if you don’t understand something, go to your teaching assistant. Trust me, I felt just like you do now going through engineering school. I was grossly under-prepared for the school I went to with my crappy catholic school education. Try taking physics 101, when all you had in high school was an 80 year old nun with a fat ruler in her hand that cared more about keeping the class in order than to actually teaching you about science. Fill in the blanks physics tests…really? Anyway, I know you have it in you to do well..just tell yourself you can do it, and it will happen. Oh..and it’s okay to feel stupid as long as you feel less stupid as time goes on. It is possible to catch up. It took me a couple of years to do so, but by junior year I was just as smart as those other geeks in my class.

    Rock on, you big dorky computer nerd. Hurray for making a better life for yourself. Education is so so important. I’m glad you’re finishing up your degree.

    • Things definitely click more when you apply them. That’s why I think I feel more confident about math, because I’ve been doing it! I haven’t been finding midpoints and factoring and all that but still. This is actually going to be a second degree for me. I finished my first degree when I was 9 months prego with Daughter. And as much as I love the English, I think a different degree would open up different opportunities for me. So I’m excited!

  6. if you’re having issues with the underlaying algebra to go along with the pre-calc, is excellent. It does have some of the pre-calc stuff you should be learning as well (at least in the beginning).

  7. Im going to school for my RN and have had to have my 16 year old sit down with me and explain the math to me. I cry most nights doing the work but as long as I pass I am ok.

    Ok and at my Catholic grade school it was Mrs. Greeway who was the bane of my existence. The woman hated me and of course I had her for three years.

    Good luck!!! You can do it

  8. Of COURSE you are great at math! That teacher should be flagellated. (The Catholic church still does that, right?) Making girls think they are bad at math has to be one of the cardinal sins, and sadly one that is all too prevalent.

    I had my optional K-12 math review for my elective yesterday. By the end of the semester they’ll be having to do really difficult problems in order to really understand some complex economics. But yesterday they reviewed fractions, exponents, how to solve for x, and so on. I have this review because last time I taught the class a couple students asked for it and they ended up getting As in the class after we filled in some pretty substantial gaps in their basic knowledge. All they needed were those earlier tools and they were able to nail the more advanced material.

    Being able to do math and not being terrified of it opens up a world of opportunities. (High paying opportunities!) And it’s just beautiful.

    P.S. Some of our students are enjoying khanacademy to fill in their background gaps.

    • It is a cardinal sin and it’s one of the reasons I’m pushing myself to go through this– to show my daughter girls can do the math and science stuff too!

      That review sounds great. She’s doing a sort of basics/foundations thing but yeah it’s still rough.

      I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where this road takes me as far as opportunities go. You just can never have enough of those.

      Khan is awesome. I am loving it. I get it and it makes sense and it’s just awesome.

  9. p.s. Use your TA or your professor’s office hours if you’re still stuck on things! That’s what we are there for! Also work with your fellow students, or at least check your homework with them. When I was taking calculus one summer at the local university I had a very eclectic study group set up– all sorts of ages, majors, professions. We met in the library basement (where we were allowed to eat) once a week after class to check our homework answers and get help on the ones we didn’t get right away. And it helped a lot.

    • She just posted her office hours and she also posted up the hours for the free math labs and free math tutors too so I’m going to just keep those handy. This group is not very eclectic. It’s mostly kids. I’m pretty sure I’m the oldest one and probably the only one with a full-time job too. But it’ll be ok I think. We’ll see.

  10. I didn’t get a very good start with high school math due to an asshat teacher, too. In grade school/middle school we weren’t prepared very well for high school math; I recall having about two weeks of algebra prep just before we finished 8th grade. My first year algebra teacher in high school was a super creepy guy who slipped sexual innuendos and comments into every conversation he could and would touch me when I raised my hand with a question during a test. (Requesting a pass to the nurse one morning I distinctly recall him questioning my “morning sickness.” I was 14, you jerk!!) I nearly flunked that class and I was a solid Honors student in every other subject.

    Like FGA, putting math into real world terms helped me a lot. Despite my troubles with Algebra, I found that all those xs and ys and silly formulas made much more sense when I put it into practice during Chemistry class. Ah ha! That’s why you need to solve for x! I get it!

    Now that I know myself much better, I also know that I absolutely require that practical application piece for things to click for me. Whether I’m learning a system (SharePoint 2010 anyone?), a concept, or a technique in knitting or gardening, I need to do it “hands on” to really “get it.”

    You know so much more about yourself now than you did way back in grade school. Push for what you need to internalize and learn this stuff and you’ll do great.

    • Ew your teacher sounds GROSS. it’s amazing how much power teachers have over their students’ performances.

      I’m very hands on as well. I need both– see and understand and then do and understand it for real. I’m really excited.

  11. I love this post! Fear can be debilitating, the hardest part of getting closer to who and what we want for ourselves and our families. Sometimes, the fear is with good reason; other times, the fear has grown beyond any sensible proportion, and we only come to realize it when we confront it – and beat the crap out of it!

    I’m so glad you’re great at math! And bravo, for going back to school.

    • “other times, the fear has grown beyond any sensible proportion, and we only come to realize it when we confront it – and beat the crap out of it!”
      There are a few other things I need to do that too still. One at a time. Thanks, I’m fully exploiting my free university benefits.

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  13. i am currently back in university studying French with the intention of actually being fluent, or at least proficient enough to work in a francophone professional environment. Amazed to find that at age 49, all my prior French — unused for 20 years or more — IS STILL THERE, still accessible, and already improving by leaps and bounds in the short time I’ve been back at school. Helps that I’m studying in a francophone city.

    For awhile I’ve also feeling curious about whether I might have more math ability than I’ve ever given myself credit for. I always did poorly in math but I honestly never really tried very hard, doing just the minimum because I was intimidated and thought I didn’t like it (really, I just wanted to be out partying — that teenage thing). More and more, I’m suspecting it’s NOT a gift as Carl suggests in the comment above. Of course some people will be gifted and have a spark of genius for the field, but fairly solid competence at a relatively high level is possible with good teaching and genuine effort on the part of the student. (I actually think this is pretty much true with any field, even the arts. You may never be Mozart, but you generally will be competent if you put in the hours.) I had to take an online math course — very basic level — to finish my first B.A. and surprised myself by pulling an A. Now I wonder if I could actually do something more challenging. As Nicole says, if I did I might find better-paying job opportunities. Khan Academy is great.

    • Oh go you with the French! I’d actually love to learn a third language too. It’s on my list that’s for sure.

      I’m sort of with you on the solid competence coming with hours and effort. I’m finding myself tripped up over silly little things that I know are a matter of practice. Otherwise, I understand the overarching concepts. We’ll see. Right now, I’ve been stressed about it because the first test is approaching and I’m still feeling rusty and hazy. Some days things click better than others. Today is a better day than yesterday. Khan is helping me but it does have limits. I may need to call on the math lab the school offers and other tutoring opportunities.

  14. I will not comment on your old math teacher (other than yikes!), but I do have some math hints for you.

    1) Get a study group together. I once went to a lecture by an award-winning professor and he talked about how some students didn’t do well in his calculus classes because they just came to class, did the homework, and studied. I thought to myself–hey, that’s what I did. What else is there? And that’s when he told us. Study groups–only one of you has to learn something the hard way, and then you teach it to everyone else. You’re all working on the exact same stuff (unlike Khan Academy), so you’ll all have similar frames of references you can use when talking to each other. No, I do not know how to organize a study group (people skills?), but you might be able to ask the professor to let you ask your class mates to meet after class to set up a study group. I do know you should meet after (or before) every class, not just before exams.

    2) Free tutoring and labs? Go for it. When I was in school, tutoring somehow seemed like cheating to me; I never did it. But then when I was in college, I became a statistics tutor. I don’t know how other tutors are, but I felt like the students I tutored were not cheating, but just learning more efficiently. You know how when you’re doing a problem and your answer doesn’t match the one in the back of the book, you know something’s wrong. By yourself, you might spend hours looking for your mistake. A tutor can tell you things like, “Check this line here.” And sometimes the student can’t see the problem when it’s staring right at them, and then the tutor can actually teach them something they don’t already know. So, a tutor knows everything you need to know and they can see what you know and what you’re struggling with and give you help only on the parts you’re struggling with. Efficient learning! (By the way, if you don’t like your first tutor, try a different one–I think it’s like therapists in this way.) Math labs may also be very well designed going from one step to another in different ways than all your other resources.

    3) Take advantage of the Mrs. Rodriguez punching bag. I know my parents worked harder at making their marriage work (50 years so far) as a result of naysayers. A friend and I once read about a study that showed that if you gave kids a math test, the girls would do a little worse than the boys, but if you told them that research had shown that girls tend to do worse, the girls would do EVEN WORSE. My friend and I could not believe those results. Don’t be like those girls. Be like my mom, who when they told everyone “No one ever finishes the questions on standardized tests,” thought to herself, “We’ll see about that.”

    4) Even people who have no math trauma, are good at math, and who love math, often (usually?) look at a new problem and think to themselves, “I have no idea how to solve this.” So don’t let that feeling get you down. You can move on to the next problem and then go back. Or you can ask yourself, what information do I have? What additional information can I figure out, knowing this information? Okay, now do I have any clues on how to get to the answer? Draw pictures. Re-write the given information.

    5) I took calculus in the 12th grade. On my first test I made a D and my teacher recommended that I drop the class. I did not want to drop the class. But I continued making only C’s and D’s throughout the year. Calculus is different from other math, and I felt like it was all making sense to me about three units after the unit where I was being tested. It turns out I was right. I took calculus again after college, and I totally aced it the second time. So, if you somehow don’t end up making more than a C+ like you plan, but you do feel like you are slowly basically getting it, don’t give up, just try again.

    6) When taking a test, if you have time at the end, go back and check your work. I like to make a little mark next to the problems I feel iffy about and quickly move on; then if I have time I go back and look at it again and it might make more sense the second time. (And if I don’t have time, at least I quickly moved on to problems I didn’t feel iffy about and got more of those done.) I make a lot of stupid mistakes, so checking my work actually greatly improved my grade. But if you find that you’re one of those people whose first answer is better than her second answer, then ignore this advice!

    7) Keep spending extra time like you are. Start the homework when you first get it so that you have time to go back again after your brain has had a rest and look at it with fresh eyes.

    8) For math tests, I don’t recommend cramming. Being well rested with your brain at maximum functionality is much more important than memorizing those last few details.

    9) If your college has a teaching program, then your library probably has a few math text books. Many math textbooks suck, but some don’t. If you need another place to catch up, check those.

    10) For when you get into calculus, Richard A. Hunt and Douglas F. Riddle both wrote very good math textbooks (a couple-three decades ago, I guess). If your text is mediocre or worse, find one of those (I search for books using addall-dot-com), and since they’re old and you don’t care what edition you get, they should be super cheap if you can find them. Unless they’re rare classics by now or something.

    11) Remember that most instructors give partial credit, so at least turn in what you do know. Also, if units are involved, don’t forget to include units in your answer. (Sometimes figuring out the units helps you realize you missed a step. And sometimes using the units helps you figure out how to do the actual work–that’s how my mom taught the other nursing students she was in classes with to do the nursing math. It’s like knowing that you are looking for miles per gallon tells you which number to divide by which other number.)

    Well, one of those hints might be handy for you. Good luck.

    • I think that I am going to print this and put it in a math binder because it is ALL very helpful and handy advice. Thank you so much for taking the time to leave this with me. I want to hug you!!

    • Wow, these are great suggestions. I am going to save them for myself and also share them with my sons, one of whom is heading to college next year.

  15. I must say, as the mother of seven kids, it is NOT uncommon in my experience for middle school teachers to bully children in their care. Most common scenario–female teacher bullies female middle school student. I’m not sure why, but this happens a lot!


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