When I cast my mind back through the decades to grade school, I remember feeling it was a trial all around. I wasn't all that great at reading, either, back in first and second grade. And I was really bad at sitting still and paying attention. Just like today, deep in my heart, all I really wanted was to be outside, running around in nature with my hair streaming behind me, not caring if I got muddy or what time I ended up coming home. Now that's my basic self
Luckily, back in the day, labeling and medicating kids who squirmed in their chairs and daydreamed all day and hated being stuck inside having to follow a bunch of boring rules wasn't that common. Once I caught on to reading, I not only caught up to grade level, I soon zoomed right past it, not that I ever became a model student. In fact, in sixth grade, I actually failed reading, because I wouldn't do the boring class assignments; I was too busy reading books like The Shining and Tess of the Durbervilles on my own. In my spare time, when I wasn't reading or roaming around outdoors, I was studying veterinary textbooks I checked out from the library, in preparation for my future career.
Did I become a vet? No.... If you want to know the truth, right now I have a bachelor's degree (in history) and a Master's degree (in English), and since I decided I didn't much care for teaching, I'm spinning my wheels as a medical receptionist/biller. And when I stop and try to figure out how this all happened, I keep getting back to math anxiety.
Besides being a weird kid (who later became a weird adult) who just didn't fit in to the public school program, I was also a Navy brat. We moved from place to place, a lot. Since I've always enjoyed travel and new experiences, and was never much for the social scene, I didn't mind it at the time. But now I see how it wreaked havoc with my education. Once I got the hang of reading, there was no stopping me.
But since math seemed a bit more complicated, every disruption in my education set me back a little bit more, then a little bit more. I was slumping along on target until high school. In ninth grade, I passed algebra I, with a hard-won "B." Then we moved. I was getting a "B" in geometry in my new school, when right before the semester ended, we moved again. Three weeks out of school, then a new textbook and a new teacher in a subject I'd been shaky with. The new school district decided I couldn't keep up. I agreed with them. Since I'd already passed algebra, they said I couldn't go back to that or I wouldn't get any credit for it, so I was placed in "pre-algebra." In other words, shunted right out of the college prep program.
I disliked math anyway, and considered myself bad at it, so I didn't complain. Instead I passed "pre-algebra" and limped along into "pre-geometry." Then, in my senior year, I won a Rotary International Scholarship to become an exchange student in Maizuru, Japan, which was one of the best experiences in my life thus far...but involved no progression of math skills whatsoever. (Obviously, they study math in Japan. But as a non-Japanese speaker, I wasn't expected to keep up with any content classes. Instead, I did independent studies for my barely-English-speaking teacher.) So, the last level of math I ever passed was..."pre-geometry."
And I felt that was fitting. As far as I was concerned, math was a nightmare. I sucked at it. I wanted nothing more to do with it. More to the point, other people agreed with me. (Including, alas, my parents, and some of my teachers. My high school chemistry teacher discouraged me from studying chemistry in college on the grounds that I hated math. Although I'm sure she didn't mean it the way I took it, I believed her...despite the fact that I loved science and got an "A" in that chemistry class.)
Looking back, I'm not trying to cast blame at anyone. By high school, my fear of math had grown so huge that I'm not sure that anyone could have laid it to rest. And there were a lot of other issues at stake. Some psychologists have pointed out that girls' self-confidence plummets during adolescence; I don't know if that's still true, or was ever a common problem, but it was very true for me. None of this would matter, if it weren't for the fact that, when I went to choose my college major, I picked history instead of biology or chemistry, because I thought that history would be "easier." I had a vague idea that I would teach, because I was sure that I wouldn't fail at that. My dreams of being a veterinarian or a botanist evaporated just that quickly, because I had decided it would be "too hard."
Thirty years later, I am rather annoyed with my adolescent self. Why did I give up so easily? Why did I doubt myself so much, and not demand, or find, the help I needed to get back on track? Why did I let a fear of numbers derail my dream? Of course, there was a lot more going on than math anxiety. But now, thirty years later, I have decided to make things right. Is it too late to pursue my dream of being a scientist (more to the point, an ornithologist)? Maybe, maybe not. But it's not too late to learn math, damn it! And so, I have started watching videos through the (free! and easy to understand!) Khan Academy, starting simple. And as it turns out, "pre-algebra" -- factors and multiples, fractions and decimals -- is not hard at all. I'm not sure why I struggled so much in grade school. On the other hand, when I flipped through an algebra book at Barnes and Noble last weekend, the sight of all those x's and y's did set me into a bit of a panic. But you know what? It's not rocket science...it's just basic algebra. It took me 30 years to realize, "I'm smart enough...I can do this." But better late than never!
Because, if I do pursue my dream, I think that going back and catching up will only be to my benefit. And even if I don't...well, I hate failing at something. It's time to put this one to rest.
This is probably one of the more personal posts I've ever put out here. Because it's not just about being anxious about math, but also about a whole series of poor choices related to that fear, and about wanting to change my future path. And although I am loath to judge anyone, when I think of the lost opportunities, between my interests and abilities, and the lock-step public education system, it does kind of upset me. However, I have been a teacher myself, so I do understand that, no matter how much you may care, you can't be all things to all students...especially if those students are too shy to tell you what they need.
Is there anything that you were afraid of in your past, that you now wish you had pursued? Are there any dreams that you are considering following even though it might be too late?