*an open letter to any student who feels “behind” in math*

Eight years ago, I launched this blog with a confessional essay called What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math. Eight years later, people still stumble across it. The comments section has become a record of their struggles, a guestbook at the Historic Home of Feeling Stupid, full of heartbreaking signatures.

The other day, a student named Madelaine wrote this:

I feel really horrible right now. Last year I have dropped precal and applied math to take essentials because I was so scared of failing math. This year I overcame my fear and I’m currently taking the course I dropped last year (Grade 10 Precal/applied) but its really hard. At this very moment I am failing the class by 2% I’ve been avoiding a huge test about the whole unit and I’m struggling to get by.

Here’s the part that especially gets me:

I’m currently in grade 11 and doing a Grade 10 math course! it’s very embarassing but at the end of the day I know I have to take it now sooner than later.

To her, it’s so simple it barely needs saying.

Grade eleven student.

Grade ten math.

Exclamation point.

I had almost forgotten what it’s like to be that age, when a year looms so large.

I am currently what archaeologists call “Dad-aged.” At my age, like most ages, it doesn’t really matter how old you are. I have professional role models in their 20s. I have friends in their 60s. The students I taught when I was 22 are currently 25. They’re older now than I was then; I could buy them a beer.

(By the way, OCHS grads, I’ll do it! First round is on me! Seriously, get in touch!)

A year is nothing. It’s a dozen beats of a hummingbird’s wings. There’s no reason to care whether someone was born in 2005 or 2006, except that the educational system is a big bureaucracy with a limited number of desks. So we draw lines on the calendar, and lump together kids who fall between the same pair of lines – never mind their passions, their struggles, their values, or their experiences in this world.

You’re not “behind,” Madelaine. That’s just the label that our antfarm of a school system has slapped on your back. You’re learning. That’s what counts. You’re doing a hard thing, and doing hard things is how we grow.

Last and most of all: ask for the help you need. It’s our work as adults to prepare you to thrive in the world, to help you become the person you want to be. Math class is just one step on that journey; it’s too often a nasty step, one that trips people up and skins a lot of knees. But you know what that means? There are lots of people out there who have felt that pain, and lots more who want to help you avoid it or overcome it.

If you’re reading this, Madelaine or anyone else: I believe in you.

Now, to be fair, I don’t know you personally, so if you’re an ax murderer, or even just an aspiring ax murder, then I do *not* believe in you. Please change careers.

But for the rest of you: I believe in you. I know that people are capable of great things, even (and perhaps especially) when they don’t believe it themselves.

That means you.

Forget “behind.” Keep moving ahead. You’ll get to where you’re going.

To Madeleine and all those who struggle with math: I was a Community Education Director. I hired teachers to teach the adults who had failed their math when they were in school. Math teachers are scarce. Good math teachers are even scarcer. The best ones I hired were those who had struggled through it when they were younger. They understood. Madeleine — you have the makings of an excellent teacher. Hang in there Babe. Judith

Madeleine isn’t behind. In fact, if she was taking PreCalc in grade 10 she was ahead! Way ahead! So far ahead she may have bypassed understanding to the point of needing to slow down and smell the functions just a bit longer before forging ahead.

A parent whose son was failing precalc as a junior once asked me point blank at a parent conference If her son understood the material. When I said no she then told me he must repeat the class senior year. At our school you were not allowed to repeat if you weren’t failing and I had to fight for the right for him to do so. Since that time I have felt free to make that recommendation to students that would benefit from repeating. There is no shame there, only intelligence.

We also had a year when as a result of a misunderstanding most all students were required to take algebra (pre common core). We had a vast amount of failures. When state testing occurred our scores were through the roof. Even though the students had failed the coursework, learning at a higher level had occurred. A failing grade doesn’t mean you are not learning.

The question I keep asking is, if someone is learning, why do they have a “failing grade”? No one who is making progress in understanding is a failure.. Yet the system and the structures within the system allow us to tag a student a failure “in the coursework” though they have learned at a higher level. That is incongruous to me.

You could or should also ask the question how could someone who is successfully passing a course not really understand the material? It cuts both ways. There are many reasons for both of these scenarios. As long as you decide a grade must be given then there will always be these questions. With only a couple years to go until retirement I completely changed the way I graded students work. It is a question for the ages.

I’m 70. I didn’t start trying to learn math until I was nearly 35. I have master’s in math education from the University of Michigan. I also have a master’s in literature from the University of Florida. Lately, I have been reading FINNEGANS WAKE. Two years ago I finally read all of ULYSSES (previous attempts bogged down in 1969 and 1984). Barely a day goes by that I’m not watch math lectures on YouTube, reading math blogs and/or books and playing with previously-learned math and trying to learn new (to me) math. I was so far behind when I started on math that had I let that stop me I’d never have started. Reading ULYSSES is impossible. Reading FINNEGANS WAKE makes tackling ULYSSES look like reading Dick & Jane. Giving up is always an option. But so is trying again later.

This reminds me of a bit Dana Carvey used to do where he would pretend to brag about himself and say “I am 30 years old, but I read at a 34 year old level.” It makes the point beautifully of how absurd some things sound outside of the educational system.

I agree with others in telling you not to worry too much about where you are in relation to others. It’s not important in the great scheme of things. I did not realise I could ‘do Mathematics’ until I was aged 50. I do think the pressures of exams and tests negatively impact on a lot of school students’ attitude to Mathematics. My fear is that like me you will scrape the minimum pass and then quit Mathematics possibly for life secure in the baseless knowledge that you are not very good at it.

Not to get into a competition with Madeleine, but I was 30 before I understood why a value raised to the power zero is 1 (worked it out from first principles, essentially). I’d even been through a Calculus course ten years earlier (differential and integral – and I still don’t fully understand the subject – oops) as part of my training as a medical lab technician working for the NHS.

At the time (1980s) I was running a computer user group and writing a series of articles to help folks much older/younger than me get to grips with programming in BASIC; I needed to explain some basic concepts while writing up functions like EXP() and LOG() so I absolutely had to understand the material.

It was also about that time that I finally understood – had a mere inkling – what is meant by the “beauty” of Mathematics. At 68 I’m still a dunce in many respects but at least I’m a slightly more knowledgeable dunce 🙂

I’ve never taught professionally, but I’m a mother who is educating one of her own two kids at home, and I’ve tutored a friend’s homeschooling teen in algebra.

As a teen–and a girl–I thought I “hated math.” I liked science classes in high school, though, and was distractedly following the college track for math leading to senior year calculus, so I could keep up, though I had no deep understanding of why applying the rules I was taught worked to solve equations.

Then I attended a women’s college. I signed up for Elementary Statistics my first semester to “get math out of the way” and meet my breadth requirement. In that context in the 1990’s, in a room full of female students who widely expressed confusion over the (elementary!) material, I suddenly realized how much more easily it came to me. The background noise of self-confident male high school peers had prevented me noticing my native ability when I was younger!

I ended up a Math & Physical Sciences major, though concentrating in Computer Science. (I learned that I prefer hacking to purely theoretical math.) But I took my fair share of higher level college math, and I am “better than average” at it (compared to the overall population, if not mathematicians.) As a 16 year old, I NEVER WOULD HAVE GUESSED THAT COULD HAPPEN.

I tell every teen I encounter that math is not a ladder to climb to please an academic bureaucracy. It is a set of TOOLS which, once mastered, make one’s life easier and better. (I also point out studies that show taking *any* college math improves one’s future earnings prospects, which can be motivational.)

I hope Madelaine develops a mathematical tookit for herself, gaining access to the superpowers contained therein!