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x. y. 1 484, 489457, 92, 6, 3, 13. Squared, cubed, the power of 8. a squared times b to the power of 5. Quotient. Polynomial. Bi, tri, poly, mono. Supercalifradjalisticexpealadocious. The square root of mars divided by the time vortex. The square of pi times 7 and factored into 9.
Nonsense! Absurdity. Ludicrousness, gibberish, balderdash, bunk, claptrap, rubbish, prattle, inanity! Senseless! Thoughtless! Dizzying! Baffling, bewildering, blurring!
One word for each step as I climb up the stairs towards math class.
There’s a test today. I know I’ll ace it, but there will be a price to pay. I can do any math you teach me, but not with ease. The correct answer will find its way onto the paper, but the letters and numbers and exponents and symbols do not slide gracefully from my mind and arrange themselves neatly on the paper. The long strings of complex digits can never learn to knot themselves with symmetrical ties of plusses and minuses, cannot swiftly and smoothly distribute and combine, will never allow me the peace and skill possessed by so many others. My mind is filled with long, dark corridors, twisted and jagged, filled with sharp rocks and sudden dead ends, constantly threatened by terrifying foes. Stray zeros and negatives are considered useless cargo, often dropped off in a frenzy or accidentally picked up in a mad rush through a blocked-off tunnel. Variables are shaped with putty, x’s turning into y’s and u’s often distorted into a’s, z’s and 2’s and +’s and t’s mashed up and mixed up and twisted in the scurry towards the end of the labyrinth. Detours and pathways are hidden in the shadows, disguising a passageway as a dead end, finding no solution where there is a merely cluttered trail. Almost all of the time the solution is reached, but the effort and exertion required is tremendous.
I remember the day of the math final and shiver, recalling the pain. 200 minutes of class. 80 questions of math. Double-and triple checking of each problem. Figuring and factoring and operations galore, straight from bell to bell. Hell. 240 problems solved. 3 and one third hours of math. I received 100% on the test, solidly locking down my A for the semester, but it took me hours to recover from the sheer mental exhaustion. As I worked my way slowly and steadily through the massive jumble of numbers and variable, smoothing and straightening and picking and arranging, I found a brand-new type of headache. Concussion Headache: strong, steady, constant pain. Caffeine Headache: dull, pounding, thudding pain. Thirst/Heat Headache: Inflamed, throbbing, heated pain. Math headache: Indescribable. There’s no pain – not really. It’s like being drained, strained, restrained but ordained. There’s nothing left for the mind to work with, but it must keep functioning. Like sucking at a dry dirt pool while dying of thirst, but less substantial. There is no thirst to feel, only a vague unreachable nothingness. Like gasping for breath within a vacuum: There’s nothing to feel, nothing to not feel, which only makes it all the more painful. Gasping for breath with nothing to breath.
There’s another type of pain that comes with math; a less agonizing, desperate type but pain nonetheless. I think back to 8th grade, to 6th grade. Two significant worksheets that have haunted me since the day I completed them.
6th grade. Lesson 6-4. Converting standard units to metric, and vice versa.
8th grade. Lesson who-on-earth-knows-or-cares-I-hate-this-class-too-much-to-for-words. Substitution method. Solving systems of equations.
The worksheets that I handed in on those two days represented hours and hours of strenuous, laborious work. I spent hours to complete approximately ten or so questions. I worked on the math until I felt ready to cry. I worked on the math until I did cry. I gave up and turned to English, seeking relief, hoping for a break. But the math work had sucked out every IQ point that resided in my brain, every ounce of logical and reasoning energy. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t concentrate. I scrabbled around within the empty shell of my head searching, desperately searching for something, anything, anything helpful! It was to no avail. I stared at my notebook for fifteen minutes before I remembered that I was supposed to be writing something. My eyes were wide open, unblinking, staring, unseeing, unobserving, blank, empty, meaningless, shallow, haunted by the figures of algebra that still danced in front of my eyelids, taunting, teasing, tormenting, tantalizing, threatening…
To this day I have no memory of what the essay was meant to be written on. But the horrific memories of the torture of algebra remain carved into my head, leaving behind the bloody scars of the systems of equation and unit conversions. I can still trace the raised white lines, see where the x’s and y’s are etched forever within the soft, vulnerable tissue of my brain, destined to plague me for eternity.
I stand over the threshold of the algebra classroom and inhale deeply.
The introduction is given. I have all period. 55 minutes. The test is 34 problems long. How many is that for me? 72. Double and triple check, that’s the key. 68. Homework is due today, too. Sheets of paper. Who knows how many? 9.3, 9.4, 9.5a, 9.5b. Whose idea was it to split 9.5 into two parts? 9.1-9.5 EP. That’s Extra Practice. I don’t need extra practice. I need the brain of a mathematically competent student. With every practice worksheet I complete, a single pebble falls off the crooked, jagged walls of my mathematical mental maze. And then we start a new section, and a fresh, brand new web of intricacy is born, one thousand times more complex and perilous than the first.
The sheets of paper are handed out. I am the last to receive mine, being seated on the far right of the classroom. The boy in front of me passes back a test for me. What’s his name? It hardly matters. The only thing that matters in the 34 questions printed neatly onto 3 sheets of crisp, white paper. The paper is white enough to blind a person. The black type is small and mathematical enough to intimidate. It is time. It is time to take every piece of information that I have learned and learned again, and put it into practice on this sheet of problems.
My pencil slashes and copies and scribbles and figure. I divide, divide, divide, divide. This chapter is all about dividing. Reducing, simplifying, solving – all fancy words for dividing more and more and more. Divide the monomial, divide the polynomial, add and subtract the exponents, multiply and divide the exponents. Combine like terms. Is it all one term or a problem in itself? 4xyz + 6x squared – 11 zxy squared. Do I combine like terms? x + x squared = x cubed. No, no, no, no, no! Wrong. Bad. Wrong. 4 + 6 + 11 = 21. Can I do that? No. Not with variables. All one term, all composed of separate terms, completely different and exactly the same.
Scratch and scribble and scrub and scrawl. The crisp, clean, clear paper contaminated by catastrophic calligraphy. My handwriting spreads across the page, filling it up with hastily scribbled terms. Number 30: Multiply the trinomials. Cubed, squared, squared, none, coefficient, cubed, cubed, squared. Combine like terms, like terms, like terms. Cubed and cubed and squared and squared. Hasty, scurried, heedless, reckless, hurried, rash, rushed writing.
Double check. I race through it, multiplying and dividing the terms almost instantaneously in my head. 8 to 4 to 2. x squared to x cubed to one over x. 16 to 7 to 16 over 7. 2 to 3 to 6 to 8 to 48. Fast, swift, rapid. Combining and organizing and fitting each to the next. My mind is running at top speed to keep up with the dashes and checks I make on each problem. One problem right after the other. Simplify, simplify, simplify. There is no solving on this test; it’s all simplifying. Factoring, factoring, factoring. Making things concise, precise, revised, spliced. Everything as simple as can possibly be.
The test is in the box, turned in and completed. My mission accomplished. 20 minutes until the bell rings; I’ve been getting faster. I pull out preceding practice papers: the chapter 9 homework. The unfinished undertakings. 9.3 is fully filled out. 9.4 requires review. 9.5a and 9.5b both bring bothersome burdens. 9.6a is missing many mathematical merits. 9.6b has achieved every algebraic answer.
My brain still hurts from the test effort, but the homework must be completed. Most of the unfinished problems are mere review questions, hardly worth the effort and yet required nonetheless, but 9.6a was missing a several division problems. With a resigned sigh, I regard remaining work. Oh, the ramification of procrastination.
Simple, but time consuming. I anxiously watch the hand of the clock tick by. 5 minutes…ten minutes…twelve. The hour has slipped by in a whirlwind of numbers and variables, and it continues to bleed through my grasp as I struggle to complete the work.
This is my second year in algebra. I will not fail again.
Math is torture. Nobody in the classroom could deny it, save for the teacher. Every one of us was united with one common characteristic: we all despised math. The standard curriculum did, after all, state that we were supposed to be in geometry. We had all been held back. And so every day, without fail, each of us held our heads high and heroically headed into the classroom. We all carefully watched the board and the lesson, and hastily hustled to be herded to higher levels. Every one of us wanted to pass. Every one of us wanted to be rid of this rathole.
Someday, I shall be rid of math. I will grit my teeth through geometry, acquiesce with algebra 2, put up with pre calculus and capitulate to calculus. I will struggle through year after year of math work, and I will succeed. I will find a way to succeed. And then some day, some glorious day, filled with golden rays of sunshine and bright colorful hopes, illuminated with glittering diamonds of joy and adorned with blue skies and some magical wonder, math will become a thing of the past. The horrible, treacherous, agonizing, torturous, anguishing, excruciatingly tormenting mathematical terror will be joyously, laughingly, gleefully, merrily, splendidly, exultingly, elatedly absent from my beautifully enlightened life.
I really don’t like math.
South Haven, Michigan
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