Math, I Will Conquer You Yet


This may be a story about my tenacity and determination. It may be a story about my inability to see reason and quit an unwinnable war. It is a somewhat long story, but far less long for you than it has been for me. I hope you will bear with me.

The story started in 1994, when I started 7th grade. I had done well in 6th grade math, in a school where “doing well” was defined as being able to sit still in a desk and occasionally turn in some homework. This school was an urban middle school with kids from a wide mix of backgrounds, but the ability to sit and listen in class was uncommon enough to put me into pre-algebra for 7th grade.

Late in my 7th grade year I was doing so badly socially in that school that my parents moved me back to the school system I had attended during grade-school. I had left this school system for the same reason, but at the time it was clear that being in the middle school closest to home was the best plan for me, or at least a less terrible plan. In the first of many similar incidents, they put me in the standard math class for 7th graders instead of the pre-algebra class because it was easier.

When 8th grade started a lot of my classmates, including the only friends I had, started high school algebra. I went to standard 8th grade math: pre-algebra. We started covering exactly the same material I had a year earlier in my previous school. I was bored. I was frustrated. But I lucked out; my instructor was a young enthusiastic substitute who was working the first few months of the year while the usual math teacher was out on maternity leave. He, unlike anyone else in the administration or teaching staff, noticed I was bored. He asked me what was going on. Then he pulled strings and a few weeks into school he got me moved into algebra. He even spent time helping me catch up with what I had missed in the first few weeks.

I got A’s in algebra in 8th grade. It was my favorite class. It was interesting, my classmates were the students who cared about school, and I was being seen as a smart kid for the first time in my life. I loved it. However, during that same year I came out as a lesbian. After coming out to a few friends I was unintentionally outed to the whole school. This was 1996 and I was 14 years old. The social results were catastrophic enough that my parents decided I should not go on to high school in the same school system.

After finishing 8th grade I went on to an all girl’s Catholic high school across the city. This was not nearly as bad as it sounds – I was thrilled to go to a school with a good academic record and a great music program. Having no boys around meant I would no longer get physically assaulted after school. A private school meant much better behaved classrooms. All of these advantages turned out to be true.

However, they had me do a standardized test for math placement. I was not aware that the test was going to take place so I was completely unprepared, and since I did not bring a calculator to the test I was given one I had never used before while others in the room had calculators they were familiar with. Frustrated and taken by surprise, I placed badly, and was put into algebra again.

The algebra teacher at my new school was nothing like the attentive substitute from the previous year. I only remember him as an asshole, though the details are fuzzy now. Despite knowing the material well, I pulled B’s in his class. I vividly remember being told by that teacher that those grades proved that I was placed in the right class, as if being frustrated and angry could not have contributed to my failure to thrive.

Then a miracle occurred. As I moved on to geometry for my 10th grade year my new school hired that former substitute as the full time geometry teacher. I sat down in his class in relief and pulled A’s that whole year. He once asked me what had happened and why I wasn’t already a year ahead, but it was already too late for him to fix the mistake. I learned my geometry well though, and was ready to move on.

I started algebra 2 (sometimes called intermediate algebra) in 11th grade. If I had been on my original track, started years earlier, I would have taken Trigonometry that year. But algebra 2 began, and I struggled with it. I have no memory of the teacher in that class or of what happened during that class time though, because by then my home life had completely fallen apart and my social structure was a disaster. For reasons unrelated to math by March of that year I was in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. In April I moved to a full time residential treatment program in Utah.

The math requirement for graduation from high school in Utah was beginning algebra. The school attempted to teach me (and a few other students) higher level algebra, but since they had no expectation that we would ever go to college there was no strong drive to encourage us to learn more math. During the rest of that school year and the summer I was placed in a classroom learning beginning algebra – the class I completed in 8th grade – while being given occasional lessons above that level by teachers who didn’t really expect us to learn it. I didn’t learn anything that year.

During my 12th grade year at that school I was not placed in a math class at all. They did not offer math beyond algebra 2. On my original track I would have taken AP calculus during my 12th grade year. In January of 2000, just before my 18th birthday, I was expelled from that school for reasons unrelated to math and returned to Wisconsin with no high school diploma at all.

I got my High School Equivalency Diploma that following August and worked for years in various fields. In 2009 I finally went back to school to get an associates degree in Accounting. I attended my local technical college and tested into and took Intermediate Algebra. The class was difficult largely because my instructor was hard to understand, but I got through it and learned the material. I also took finance math and economics which were both incredibly easy. Then, deciding I wanted to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in science, I continued on to take College Algebra (aka Precalculus), Algebra based Physics, and Trigonometry. I loved all of it except for my Trig class, which was packed full of rowdy students who absolutely hated math, did not respect our instructor at all, and talked loudly through every class. I was miserable in the class and seriously struggled with the material. While I did finally get an A in the class, I left knowing that I had not really learned the material and got the grade primarily for showing up, paying attention, and doing my homework.

I tried taking Calculus the next semester. I dropped it 3 weeks in, clearly unprepared and HATING the instructor. I tried again as an online course this past fall, while starting school at a new University as a transfer student. I dropped it again, but made it further the second time. Still, I am clearly not prepared for Calculus. Calculus 1, 2, and 3 are required for my major and all science majors at my school. They SHOULD be, math is essential to the sciences and I have no problem with the requirement.

Still, I’m frustrated. There is no question that I should have graduated high school with AP Calculus 1 already done. I am 32 years old and struggling to finally grasp information I should have learned before I turned 18. The school systems and my social ineptitude fucked me over, and I hate that I’m still suffering for it so many years later. It makes me truly angry.

My options now are pretty simple: Drop out of school, or learn the material I didn’t really grasp in Trig. I started at Trig class this quarter at my new school, but it was clear right away that it would be a bad fit. Again, the classroom was full of chatty students and the teacher was dull beyond belief. I dropped it in favor of a required course and sought out a tutor. We’re going to have to work hard to get me prepared, but I am determined.

I will become the master of Trig and Precalculus over the next 6 months, and tackle Calculus again in the fall. I am determined not to let the massively messed up educational systems behind me stop me from getting the degree I so desperately want. When I finish Calculus 3 (and probably also Statistics) I will not just have learned some stuff that’s hard to learn – I will have conquered whole systems that were determined to hold me back and prevent me from accomplishing my best work.

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  1. Good for you for being so determined! I’ve tutored several adult students through calculus courses and they’ve all been able to succeed because they put in the effort. You will too 🙂

  2. Keep up the hard work, Benny! I know you can do it and it will pay off!

    I, for one, am glad that I’m a qualitative researcher and so only need very basic math skills. I really struggle with math.

  3. That’s really frustrating! I hate it when I see a school fails to give a student what they need to thrive. Algebra and trig are so important – they lay the foundation for higher math and the sciences. I’m glad you aren’t letting their failures stop you from reaching your goal.

  4. I got ridiculously excited to see a post about math, because it is my second love in life (after coffee). But ugh, whys a long and frustrated journey! Still, I believe in you. 🙂

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