# Thanks for the…

It’s weird what you remember.

Case in point: I have a very vivid memory of failing a math test. This was way back in elementary school. Fourth grade, I think—the assignment was on fractions–so I would have been nine or ten.

It didn’t shape my life. It wasn’t fractions that killed my dreams of being a famous astronomer*. And yet, that assignment pops into my mind whenever I have to split things into equal portions. Halves, thirds, quarters.

* Calculus was my real nemesis. If it hadn’t been for that darn ∫ I coulda given Carl Sagan a run for his money.

The vexing thing is that I actually knew how to do the work. It was comparisons: which is larger, 2/3 or 3/4? I knew what to do: convert to a common denominator: 8/12 versus 9/12.

But I blew the test because of a paradox. If you make the denominator bigger, shouldn’t the number get bigger too? I knew it wouldn’t, but my brain insisted that was logically inconsistent. 1/2 should be larger than 1/3, not smaller.

So on that day, I got fixated on the denominators and answered the questions looking only at those. If all of the fractions had been 1 over something, I would have had a perfect score. As it was, because teachers are sneaky, I got about two-thirds of the questions wrong.

I had to do remedial exercises for days, because at that age, I couldn’t put what had gone awry into words.

The experience may not have had a major impact on my future career, but there’s no question I was scarred by it. To this day, I prefer decimals to fractions: .67 is clearly smaller than .75; what could be easier? Until you need to dish up .5 cans of cat food—regrettably, 1/2 a can is much simpler.

More than forty years later, I still remember that assignment. At least once a week.

Totally trivial, yet omnipresent.

Talk about a 1/2-assed excuse for an idee-fixe.

## 9 thoughts on “Thanks for the…”

1. I think you touch on something more than trivial here. I ran across a conversation elsewhere online in the last couple of weeks, in which people were comparing notes about being told they had no reason to “fear math” and agreeing that the brain freeze that affected them in the face of computations was not of math itself but of the disproportionate amount of shaming they had all experienced for having difficulties with math specifically. They all agreed that the people who were supposed to teach them math, despite the implication that TEACHING something presupposes the teachee doesn’t already know how to do it, had little reaction to their difficulties other than to heap contempt on them.

I don’t know what it is about numbers that affects people this way, I mean, dripping scorn on people who have problems with them. I’ve felt joy in coaching someone who will never write their way out of a paper bag to write just a *little* better, or in validating the reasons that rules of grammar, spelling and so on confuse them. But in my twelve years of public education there were only two people tasked with teaching me math that didn’t imply I was simply snotty, stubborn or lazy for having problems that drove me to tears. One cut me off in the middle of explaining why I thought the answer to an arithmetic problem was such and such by snapping that I was only being this way to irritate her and assigning a detention.

Now, late in the day, I know there is a trait called dyscalculia and that it roughly corresponds to the people whose dyslexia means they see letters reversed and transposed. I literally cannot even use bookkeeping software because it still requires you to remember whether you need to add or subtract a number, and I regularly mix the two operations up. I can make five hundred dollar errors balancing my accounts. All numbers seem interchangeable to me, and they seem to move around on the page if I look away. When people want to have fun with number puzzles or get excited about higher maths, I feel as if I’m being slapped in the face even if that isn’t their intention. But no, I’m just “contrary” and “too smart” to have trouble with something like this.

Not sure how we fix this problem, given the number of people who go into teaching because they are looking forward to the power trip, but it seems awfully common.

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• An excellent point. I was lucky enough to have several good math teachers in elementary school and especially junior high. Not all, but enough that I didn’t come out of the educational system fearing math. Doesn’t mean I’m good at it, and I bless the invention of first calculators and then computers and phones with calculator applications. But at least it doesn’t send me screaming into the night.

It makes sense that there would be a numeric counterpart to dyslexia. Hadn’t thought about that, but yes, logical. And clearly something that needs more general awareness.

How do we fix the problem? Improving teachers’ working conditions and pay would be a good start, so the profession attracts more people who don’t need the added bonus of power over unformed, malleable minds to make it worth coming into work.

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• No kidding. I’d say the same of nursing. I don’t know what to say about doctors though, but perhaps the still decent pay there is offset by the unnecessary medical-school ordeals that traumatize med students (they have an alarming suicide rate) and numb them to other people’s trauma or make them active abusers.

Bertrand Russell said words to the effect that it is not fit for one man to be the boss of another and I wish we projected that concept more onto situations where people have no choice but to sit there an take it.

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• Indeed. (And certainly better pay for teachers is only a first step.)

As for doctors (overgeneralization alert!), much can be attributed to the profession itself. A certain personality is inevitably going to be attracted to a field that offers the power of Life! (Itself?) Itself! (See also Young Frankenstein.) Though there’s a nature versus nurture argument there: how much does the profession attract those people, and how much does the training given by those people influence the personalities of the students?

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• i think there’s a culture of “harden up and prove you can take it” that brutalizes med students. Their suicide rate is alarming, and they’re asked to perform feats of sleep deprivation that few were ever called on to replicate in everyday practice before the pandemic. The cruelty gets passed on.

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2. Beth Zuckerman says:

This is why the metric system is better.

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3. For what it’s worth, Casey, I had a similar experience with Calculus. I seemed to be good at math in High School. I liked it. In an otherwise unstable, incomprehensible world, math seemed, at times, like the only thing that made sense. I loved Algebra and really enjoyed geometry- and then I hit Calculus like a brick wall.
I simply made no sense to me, at all. My teacher was sympathetic; I suspect he’d seen it before, but he could not seem to come up with the magic…something, that would connect me with this baffling thing. I tried twice to pass a Calculus course, and had to drop out both times.
All these many years later, I retain the feeling, not of shame (thank goodness) but just understanding that there were some things in life that I was not, evidently, wired to understand. Probably a useful thing to understand, I suppose.

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• I also wound up dropping Calculus. Couldn’t stand the thought of the effect my grade would inevitably have had on my GPA. And, yes, Geometry was fun. Developing the logic for a proof was a good challenge without being, you know, all mathy.

Knowing one’s limits is good–so long as one doesn’t get locked into said limits and never tries to transcend them in aid of something that *matters*.

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