I Am Not A Mathematical Genius

Once upon a time, I was really good at math. Then we moved away for a year, and my new school didn’t bother to teach me anything about fractions, percents, or pre-algebra, all of which wouldn’t have been terrible had we stayed put (those were topics to be handled when I moved up a grade), but we moved back home and I was back in the same school I’d attended before, but woefully unprepared for the horror of Algebra.

I do mean woefully. I had no farkin’ clue what was going on, and it hurt my pride a little to suddenly realize that maybe I wasn’t good at something. Math became my bugaboo, and I did not enjoy feeling stupid. It didn’t help that my Algebra teacher was a huge sexist drag who didn’t expect girls to be able to add simple sums without taking their shoes off to count their toes, so my failure to grok Algebra was not seen as something unusual that needed to be addressed. He just shrugged and was happy to assume I was just a dim and math-phobic girl.

With algebra, I had to teach myself some basics that everyone else in the class already knew. Then I ran into new problems. With algebra, I often got the solution correct, but it happened so quickly in my brain that I didn’t necessarily know what logical steps I went through to get the right answer, but my algebra teacher was less concerned with the right answer than the right formula. I ended up so confused that I went through a phase where I couldn’t even get the right answer anymore. Trying to slow down my problem-solving brain long enough to figure out how to translate the intuitive leap into proper algebraic formulae made me crazy. I sucked at algebra.Originally I’d been pretty good at it, at least in the sense that I was getting the right answer consistently.

This “show your thinking process” crap still drives me nuts. My thinking process is logical but not necessarily normal, nor do I use the typical route to problem-solve all the time. For instance, it makes no logical sense why imagining problems with percentages as dollars and cents problems would be easier for me, because it adds an additional step into the problem, but it is. (I suppose I am lucky I was not a British kid, as their old-style monetary system was far more baffling.) If I’m confronted with “what’s 23% of 1782?,” my solution would be to locate a calculator. Duh. Failing that, I’d convert the raw numbers to monetary units, watch where I put my decimal points, and attempt to solve it that way. Which then works a treat. Telling a math professor that you do this, however, does not endear you to them. They’d think: “Numbers, O lovely numbers! Why on earth do you need silly mental pictures and real world applications?”

Well, excuse me if I need a little crutch.

When I was accidentally placed into a Math Majors’ upper level class as an undergrad, I thought for sure I was in deep doo doo. In truth, philosophy and logic and higher maths are all similar concepts. On the other hand, the professor underestimated the creative brain. During one class, he spent thirty minutes telling us that a particular block problem could not be solved without doing a particularly complicated math problem. You had to stack about eight blocks with six different colors on the sides without any colors repeating along the stacked pile’s sides: for example, you couldn’t have a block with two blue faces have both blue faces showing. It was similar to a Rubik’s puzzle in reverse. No one color could be next to itself on any side of the stacked tower.

First of all, if there is a solution at all, never say never. I was always fairly good at logic puzzles like Towers Of Hanoi and Mastermind and those peg-jumping and tile-shuffling things (I recommend the numbered ones, as you could rearrange the order to strive for if you got bored…you could, say, arrange the numbered tiles in columns instead of rows, arrange all evens on the top rows and then do all odds, do it  backwards, whatever, whereas there is only one correct solution to a shuffle puzzle with a picture on the tiles).

Second of all, I got my personal pile of blocks, and during the part where he was explaining how to assign variables to this and that, I was playing with them. If you want me to pay full attention to you, do not hand me a mesh bag full of toys to play with. That’s just foolish.

I stood up, looked down on the pile of blocks, moved my head around so I could see all four sides as I spun the blocks this way and that way, and had them arranged in the correct configuration within about thirty seconds. Sadly for me, I raised my hand to proudly point this out right as he was saying “it can’t be done without this particular formula.”

Wait, what? Apparently it damn well could.

Luckily my professor had a sense of humor (he was also a not-so-secret drunk who drank vodka from a coffee mug some mornings, poor guy) and he didn’t get angry when I inadvertently corrected him in front of the whole class (me, a mere Art / English student! how dare I?).

I did pass the class, by the way. I tried VERY HARD, and made sure to ask my professor questions and do my homework, and in the end I got a good grade on my final NOT because I became a Math Genius overnight, but because I was allowed to bring in art supplies. I cut out shapes from graph paper, taped it up to make cubes and pyramids, colored the sides and minded where my p’s and q’s were to go per side, and voila, I passed.

When there is a will, there is a way.


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