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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Chicken Soup For The Math-Deprived Soul

You know something? There are some days in which you have a difficult time choosing a topic to write about in your blog that you sometimes have to look through history in order to choose an appropriate subject.

This is one of those times.

Would you believe that I wrote this piece in my Facebook notes section almost five years ago, on November 8, 2007? It's true. Back in those days though, I only had sixteen friends, so I'm banking that not a lot of people have read this one yet.

So now, I want to share this message with all of you. It's about confronting strengths and weaknesses...and I share with you a couple of mine. Although this piece is five years old, it still holds true today. I hope you enjoy it.

Tell me your strengths and weaknesses.

How many of you out there have been asked this question at a job interview? Or, perhaps a college application. For all I know, the question could be asked on a speed-dating application. Of course, I wouldn't know. I've never speed dated. Come to think of it, I haven't dated much at all...but we'll save that rant for the next time the 14th of February rolls around. I'm sure you'll all remind me when it comes, won't you?

I suppose it's very easy for most people to list their strengths. It's easy for me as well. I've always been a great speller. I can beat almost any Final Fantasy video game (except for number two, which is so confusing to level up in). I happen to know how to program a VCR/DVD Player. Small, but simple things, that I can consider myself lucky to know.

But, weaknesses. Why bother even talking about the things you aren't any good at? Wouldn't it depress you? Make you cry? Curse God and the rest of the world for giving you a...flaw? Oh, the horrors of it all!

I know what you're all thinking. It's silliness to stress out over things that you may not be able to change, right? We all have our weaknesses, and we have to learn to deal with them.

And, by weakness, I don't mean an addiction to chocolate. I consider that to be a good thing. Chocolate=good thing.

Getting back to weaknesses, allow me to share some of mine with you.

Although the kids who used to copy off my homework in the fifth grade didn't realize this, I considered math to be my weakest subject. For the longest time, I felt as though I was not going to grasp the subject at all.

Sure, I knew my multiplication tables. Square roots, not a problem. Long division? My forte.

It was when they incorporated those stupid letters into simple mathematical problems that my disdain for mathematics began. 

And, not even the fine people of Square One television could churn out enough Dirk Niblick cartoons for me to really grasp the concept of algebra.

I said to myself, "Letters don't belong in math problems!" Sesame Street, yes. Math class, not so much.

Don't even get me started on trigonometry, the study of what I call "mathematics that 99% of people will never use in the course of real life".

(Apologies in advance to any trigonometry majors out there in the crowd.)

By the time I reached grade eleven, I had just about had enough of integers and functions. I just wanted to go back to my grade two classroom, where the most difficult math we ever did was figuring out if 7 was less than 10.

It also didn't help much that I was in a class of math geniuses and the teacher reminded me of John Moschita, the man from the commercials who could talk 4 million words a minute. The only thing I got out of that class was a barely passing grade, and a desire to never, ever, take math as long as I lived again. Had it not been for a teacher's strike and wacky winter weather, I would have flunked that class easily.

I'm still grateful towards the people who decided to cancel all exams for January 1998, by the way.

By the time I left grade eleven math, with my stellar grade of 54, I was convinced that I was hopeless at math, and that I could never be a math genius. Compared to the other 17 people in my class, I felt like the biggest idiot of them all.

That was it for me. No more math. Math bad.

But, then I got to thinking. If I had convinced myself that I was a complete moron when it came to understanding math, then clearly those two times that I had won prizes for MATHEMATICS COMPETITIONS were a fluke. Yet, I still have the certificates for the Waterloo University Math Contests. One for 1994 and one for 1996. Surely, I had to have known a little bit of math to be able to score so high on a prestigious math contest, right?

And, it really wasn't until grade eleven that I began having problems, as this math test from grade nine clearly shows.

So, why was I beating myself up for almost flunking eleventh grade math? 

Because, I wasn't the best anymore.

Because, I wanted to show the rest of the class up.

Because, I felt as though if I failed math, I wouldn't be respected as a person.

It sounds crazy, right? The thing is, in my own mind, I believed it to be true.

The high school I went to was one that celebrated academics. I admit, it's one of the reasons why I was attracted to the school in the first place (well, that, plus I lived right next door to the school).

In high school, people really struggle to fit in. Knowing that I was attending a high school that celebrated good grades and strong achievements made me feel like I could get noticed for doing what I felt came naturally to me. Throughout ninth grade, I had always made the honour roll, and felt as though I could continue to succeed, and as long as I was a success, I could be popular.

After that semester in eleventh grade where I almost failed grade eleven, I never made the honour roll again. All my former classmates had averages in the lower nineties. My average? A dismal seventy-two. A far cry from excellence, no?

To make matters worse, my school actually posted the honour roll all over the school, and it seemed like everyone in my class was on there...except me.

When report cards came out, and everyone was sharing their grades, I quickly folded up mine, placed it in my backpack, and walked out of the school in silence, criticizing myself for doing so horribly in my studies.

To me, a B average just wasn't good enough. No matter how hard I tried, I could never get much better than that.

I don't remember when I really stopped caring about school. Perhaps it was after that math class from hell. Who knows? All I knew was that I was belittling myself constantly. I felt that if I told myself that I had done badly, and if I told myself that I could have done better, it might have taken away some of the sting that I felt if anyone questioned me about it. I took the same approach when I was being bullied. If I made fun of myself first, it wouldn't hurt as much as when someone else said it to you.

My weakness wasn't grade eleven mathematics.

My weakness was self-esteem and low self-worth.

It is something that I have struggled with for years. It is something that I STILL struggle with.

I wish I didn't. I wish I didn't feel so badly about myself.

But, at times, I do.

Looking back on it all, I don't think the reason I failed math was because I didn't understand the concepts. It was because I felt inferior to everyone else in the class, and no matter what I tried to do, I couldn't catch up to them on their level.

It made me feel horrible.

It wasn't until I took a basic level math course in grade twelve that I began to discover that my problem wasn't math at all. It was me. Because in twelfth grade, I ended up getting a final grade that was 36 points higher than my eleventh grade experience.

It wasn't that I was hopeless in math. I was hopeless in the situation that I was placed in.

When I initially began eleventh grade math, we were a combined general/advanced class. I was in the general crowd, because I knew that math wasn't my strongest subject. For some odd reason, they split the class up into two, because it was so big. Unfortunately for me, the line of division ended with my name. As a result, I was the only general level kid in a classroom filled with advanced students. Because of that, the teacher rushed through lessons at such lightning speed that my head was spinning. I needed a bottle of Advil just to get through a week of lessons.

It wasn't a fair tradeoff for me. I wished that I could have gone with all the other general level students. Alas, twas not in the cards for me, and I ended up with a sour taste in my mouth for math because of it.

I bet you're all thinking...why didn't you take initiative and asked to be switched to the general class?

"And, admit that I'm not as smart as everyone else? Get real!"

In the end, that's exactly what happened, and my GPA took a nosedive that year. To add to the sadness, I had to sit and watch the smug look of my teacher. For, here I was, the only near-failure in a class of perfection.

So, thank you, Mr. Eleventh Grade Math Teacher, for destroying any dreams I had of becoming a rocket scientist.

Of course, it's not the end of the world. I realize that. Sure, that class may have killed my enjoyment for the subject of math, but in other classes, I breezed through. Eleventh grade anthropology was fantastic. OAC French? C'est BON! OAC English? Now we're talking my language.  Even art projects like the one above netted me great marks...although I expect some Americans to rib me good-naturedly at the hatchet job I did on the American flag in this poster...

After all that, am I still bitter over not getting a decent grade in math? Of course not. Not when I have so many other talents going for me.

For instance, I have what some would call the neatest handwriting in the world...or at least in my hometown. I absolutely salivate over the opportunity of writing a letter to my first grade teacher one day. After all, she did give me a "D".

I have immaculate spelling skills.

I have the desire to make writing my career. All I need is my big break.

Most importantly of all, I have grown to believe that I don't have to know how to solve an algebraic equation to be somebody.

Don't get me wrong. I still feel that I am inadequate in certain areas. People who have dealt with low self-esteem and low self-worth can't just flip it on and off like a lava lamp. For me, it has taken years of healing. I still have many years of healing left to do.

Writing this blog helps me get all the feelings out that I have held inside for so long. It's been very therapeutic. In fact, maybe one day I will be able to create a whole book of anecdotes much like this one to put into a sort of collection. You know those "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books? Kind of like that.

There wasn't any resources like that for me to consult when I was a clumsy, awkward teenager.

It's my hope that one day, there will be.

Even if I have to write it myself.

In order to do that, I have to talk about my weaknesses. If I don't, my arguments will lack strength.

And, to have strength, you have to embrace your weaknesses. Even if you don't really want to.

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