How I Slayed The Mathematical Beast-Monster by Karla Gabruch
Each semester, on the last day of class, I make prospective elementary school mathematics teachers hand in a Duo-Tang, which contains their weekly math homework and their weekly discussion points (one page responses based on required readings from our text). Ultimately, the Duo-Tang assignment is an ongoing collection of “work” intended to capture prospective elementary school math teachers’ thinking with respect to mathematics and mathematics education over the semester. However, before they hand in their Duo-Tangs, I give each student an opportunity to write a “cover letter” — after all, in order to sell the steak you must sell the sizzle. I’m happy to share with you (with her permission) what Karla Gabruch wrote this semester.
How I Slayed The Mathematical Beast-Monster
by Karla Gabruch
Math has been the bane of my existence; my kryptonite, my Dr. Octopus, my Circle Drive North.
It began at an early age, around grade three, when I was introduced to multiplication. We did timed tests, which makes little sense unless the products were needed to diffuse a nuclear bomb before it could destroy humanity. We were given big red ‘x’s’ for wrong answers, which included the questions that we did not compete. As such, I frequently failed the tests, even though the questions I did finish had the correct answers. I knew how to do it, I just wasn’t quick. Story of my life. Math began to develop little fangs and red beady eyes, but I was not yet afraid.
The teacher, in her wise and infinitely infallible wisdom, then split the class into two groups: high-functioning and low-functioning. While these terms are selected to sound perhaps kinder, children are intelligent enough to know what they really mean: smart and stupid.
When little Karla was placed in the ‘dumb’ group, she logically assumed that she wasn’t good at math. Since that thought pattern was never corrected, it became solidified. As time marched on, it became a mantra ‘I’m not good at math….I’m not good at math…..I’m not good at math’…..until finally, it became a self-fulfilling prophesy, and math became something unnaturally evil; a beast from the bowels of an unholy place.
It was then that simple Doubt morphed into crippling Anxiety and an ugly creature reared up, casting a shadow upon me. Math became a creature of darkness, a whispered word of cruelty, a bringer of shame and sadness. I began to shiver at the sight of a math textbook, and developed a phobic fear of slide rulers. Math was a curse, and I was infected with the worst of it.
It began to gnaw at my mind, consuming all rational thought. I began to have difficultly with the simplest of mathematical tasks, and was suddenly unable to do addition and subtraction in my head. When I eventually began algebra, my mind simply exploded and I was forever lost in a sea of ignorance. Up was white, black was down, hamburgers were eating people, and it seemed that I was at war for my very soul. Numbers danced through my dark dreams, fanged and deranged. Upon the backs of cruel and sharp equal signs they rode, chasing me through an infinite and moonless wood.
I fought the Pythagorean King upon the precipice of failure, and only very narrowly escaped. He was vanquished forevermore, never to be thought of by me again, but never spoken of, lest he return and smite me. Geo-Trig and Algebra became vast and unforgivable planes of existence where I fought against math and all it’s minions. The battles seemed endless, but I waged war for as long as I could stand until it was clear that I was fighting a losing battle. I retreated and relinquished my shield, choosing instead to became a shadow.
I must make the point to say, that once I stopped enjoying math, I stopped working at it. People generally and naturally avoid that which they are not proficient at, or have been convinced that they cannot do. Slowly and surely, I became a ninja, and a master of avoidance. When math appeared, I hid, deflecting it’s inquisitive shuriken with the shrewdness of my blade. I peered around corners whenever it lumbered by, willing myself to be invisible. I learned enough about Math to trick, outsmart, and sneak by it without arising it’s suspicions.. Ultimately, I became a Math-Illiterate; clever and adaptive, but still anxious and paranoid. I built fences without plans, and plumbing without measuring. I found other logical ways to solve math problems using my innate spatial ability and creativity. I enlisted people’s help for a passing grade. I once paid a classmate a box of popcorn to teach me trigonometry in an afternoon. I passed easily, but forgot the material immediately once the hoop had been jumped through. The math beast was quelled yet again.
As a result of jerry-rigging and eye-balling, I became a lazy, blithering mathematical idiot, muttering about my ineptitude and justifying my ignorance. I relished in being right-brained, artsy, creative, and a bit of a hippie. Math didn’t come natural, that was ok, I didn’t care. There were ways around it. However, when I arrived at university, I found that the beast had followed me there. It had grown to a towering size and stalked the halls, bellowing in madness and lunacy.
I was out of tricks now; there was only one right answer. I took university math courses 5 times, failing both math 110 and Stats 103 twice. I finally returned to university in 2011 after a decade off, determined to slay the Math Beast once and for all. This time around, I was determined not to be lazy in my math class and actually attend (surprising how much that helps). I needed only 3 credit units of math for my degree, and I stood at the brink, staring that dreadful beast in the eyes. I took stats 103 again, this time passing with a 67%, which I worked exceedingly hard for but still believe was generously curved.
When I got my final grade, my first thought was ‘Fudging outstanding….I will never have to take or do math ever again!’ Upon reflection, this was a terribly flawed thought, especially considering that I was planning to become a teacher. Perhaps it is more accurate that I was glad to know that I would never be tested by math again, which is actually a sad thought, considering the challenge that it gives me. Still, the beast was at last defeated, and I was the victor. ‘Go away, monster,’ I bellowed, ‘I have finally beaten you….now away with you!’
Defeated, the creature crept silently away, casting a forlorn look at me before last slipping into the Thorvaldson building to hide beneath a stairwell. That was the last that I saw of it for some time, and did not think of it again… until this year when I took this class. I went to find it recently, and upon peering into it’s hiding place, I discovered that it was not so fearsome or loathsome as I had supposed. It seemed in fact, rather sad and lonely, and not really so large, having depleted in size and ferocity. It looked at me mournfully, it’s once-gleaming eyes now baleful and sad. I couldn’t help myself; I’m a sucker for mournful. I took it home with me, and it’s been living with me ever since.
It has become a lovely companion, and is not a monster at all, actually. In fact, it is quite loveable once you give it a chance. It may not be a fluffy unicorn that shoots glitter out of every orifice (seems messy….who’d want that?!), but it isn’t a dreadful, prickly and venomous demon either. Math is precisely what we perceive it to be; nothing more, and nothing less. We make our own monsters in this world, but they are usually the sum of our greatest fears and insecurities. They are an extension of ourselves, and by that extension, we actually become our own monsters. I didn’t actually slay the Math Beast-Monster because, ultimately, there was nothing to slay.
You will see, in this duo-tang, not that I am a math whiz or ever will be, but I really did put in a lot of effort. I have no idea if my answers are correct, and many of them took me a painfully long time to do. I am someone who hated math in almost an unhealthy way, but now I have come to view it rather differently. It may never be my favourite subject, but it has now it been defanged and actually makes for quite a loveable pet and challenging companion, once you give it a chance. If anything, my experience in math has made me a more patient and understanding teacher. I hope to teach my students to not make monsters out of math, and try to foster the same appreciation for mathematics as we do for literacy.