Thursday, November 5, 2015

(Not) Good at Math

I'm tired of third grade math. I just am. I'm tired of attempting to decipher the questions my son doesn't understand (or, doesn't care to try to understand). Tired of alternating a "tough approach" (hey, pal, you got it wrong, redo it. No, neatly. No, still wrong) with an "encouraging" approach (fake smile + wine = Mommy is going to act like this math is FUN). Tired of looking at a diagram with numbers and words that bear no resemblance to any math I've had to do or would actually need to do ... like EVER. I'm tired of trying to explain concepts that I don't really get.

But mostly, I'm tired of having to say again and again, "No, you're not bad at math." This one really wears me out for two reasons. One is that math used to be easy for him, and if the drawings he does of elaborate football plays are any indication, he seems to have a pretty good grasp of numbers.

But the second reason is that every time he says "I'm not good at math," I remember second grade.

When I was in second grade, we had "tracked" classes. Meaning, you didn't just study all your subjects with your homeroom - you studied with kids of similar academic abilities. The kids in our grade were divided into three groups - for fun, the teachers suggested we pick soda names. The 7-Ups, the Sprites and the Mello-Yellos. But we knew what they really meant.

For the first week of school, much to my relief, I was a 7-Up in reading and math.The second week, I was in 7-Up math, when the teacher abruptly told me I was in the wrong class. I was confused, but she said to return my math book to the pile at the front of the class. Then she walked me and another kid across the hall.

To the Sprite math class.

I was horrified. A month away from turning seven and already I was mediocre. Taking my new seat, I was too embarrassed to concentrate on anything the teacher said. The real kicker was that up until then, I'd actually thought I was smart. But clearly I wasn't. I mean, the teacher herself said I was in the wrong class. She was the teacher, for God's sake. She knew.

Then I wondered if my friends, all of whom were 7-Ups, would even want to be friends with me anymore. After all, they were smart and apparently I was not. All these awful thoughts swirled in my brain, and when the new teacher called on me, I didn't have an answer. I didn't even know what the question was. He made some sarcastic remark and somebody snickered. I'd heard that noise before -- well, directed at me in PE, but mostly at other kids during reading. The kids who stumbled over syllables and paused in the wrong places. The kids I'd always felt sorry for when somebody laughed. And now? That was me.

It only got worse from there. I remember the teacher holding up a clock, and calling on students to tell time, which even now, when I think of it, makes me sweat. The first time he did this, I watched as another kid counted fives to come up with the correct answer. The teacher said, "good idea" and I thought hey, I can do this. I know my fives. So when it was my turn, I studied the clock and carefully began, "five, ten, fifteen, twenty ..." but I didn't know when to stop. So I just kept going till I reached the twelve, hoping the right answer would magically pop out of my mouth. It didn't. Another sarcastic crack from the teacher and mercifully, he moved on to someone else.

God, I thought, no wonder I'm in Sprite math. Any minute now, it's Mello-Yelloville. That fear did not come true; I stayed in Sprite math the rest of the year. I don't remember learning anything, except that telling time by counting fives only worked if you actually understood how to read a clock. Mostly I sat in the back and drew pictures, prompting the teacher to constantly call me out for messy work. I didn't care -- I mean, at least I was good at drawing, which was more than I could say for math.

From that point forward, I was not good in math. I don't mean my actual grades -- I was paranoid about grades early on and if I didn't understand something, by God, I'd memorize it. But in my head, I was bad at math. Every grade and new math concept I approached with dread, assuming I wouldn't do well.

Algebra came as a surprise in 9th grade. It actually made sense. I assumed this was some sort of mistake. Because, again, not smart in math.

10th grade - geometry, yup, not real smart. In 11th grade I moved out of state, to a giant school where I didn't know anyone. Math was much harder there, but, I realized, even the kids I could clearly tell were "math-smart" struggled. So I studied harder. And harder.

The next year, when I moved back home again, math was suddenly easy. The teacher complimented me. But, deep down I knew I wasn't really good -- it's just that a lot of what we covered I'd already learned the year before. When she gave me the advanced math medal at the senior award ceremony, I felt a little bit like a fraud.

In college, I tested out of the basic math requirement. Which means = I never had to take math again. And I've managed to survive fairly well on that high school knowledge. Somehow, without crazy tables and place value diagrams, I've been able to balance checkbooks and pay bills. So until recently, I was kinda thinking maybe I'm OK at math.

Then this third grade nonsense hit. With crazy word problems and splitting numbers into bars and questions like "what is the relationship between these two numbers?" I told my son, I don't know, maybe they're dating?

The teacher tells me she thinks he just isn't interested. I think -- why would he be? It's hard to get and it's easy to give up. (And, I must confess, I think things like: who the hell needs to know this stuff? Maybe he won't need this crazy math. Maybe he'll be a writer and will later laugh when he thinks of this math hell).

I also email the teacher to let her know when he's struggling - not that I have to, she can tell. But she's told me to tell her if he clearly doesn't understand the homework and I do. A couple weeks ago I started my note with, "I have to be honest, I didn't understand this" -- and then I hesitated. Why tell her that? It would just make me sound stupid. She already knows he's having problems, and I pictured her reading my email and thinking, "well the apple doesn't fall far from that tree."

But thing is, I can't be afraid to ask questions that make me look dumb because how does that help my son? So I sent the email. Since then, he's tanked another test. I made him redo the wrong answers. It was painful. But amid the yelling (from both of us) because he didn't want to do it, I told him it was important to redo the answers he got wrong.

He shook his head."Why does it even matter?"

Because, I said. You can do this.

You're good at math.