Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about math. More specifically, why I hate math.
I can pinpoint it to a single moment. Picture this, 4th grade, Georgia, my dentist’s office. While my dentist was examining my [flawless] teeth, he asked me about school (in later years, he would discuss with me how Icelandic women are the most beautiful in the world, but I digress). I go on to talk about how I was learning fractions in my math class. The dental hygienist piped in with what I’m sure she thought was a harmless statement at the time, “Oh, I hated fractions!” Her face contorted in a particularly ugly way as she spat out the word. It was almost as if she was afraid of it.
From that moment on, it was OK to hate math. Even more importantly, it was socially accepted and encouraged to hate math. Before that moment, I loved the elegant simplicity of number manipulation. When my gifted class delved into basic algebra using an actual scale, I was completely enthralled.
After elementary school, I can only remember one instance of math where I felt completely engaged without any strings – learning proofs in geometry from a teacher who was clearly passionate about the subject. He explained step by step where the formulas we used came from and how they were developed, and it was exciting. Math should always be exciting, but why are so many teachers just so bad at expressing this excitement? The reason I love languages is not because I am naturally good at them (I just fake it really well) but because I had a succession of fabulous teachers who encouraged me and instilled a great love of everything about grammar, language, culture, and linguistics. They brought languages alive in a way that directly opposed the feeling of static stagnation in math – when the truth is, math is anything *but* static!
When someone says that they hate to read around polite company (by which I mean the company that wants to see you succeed), there is a mini uproar. How can someone hate reading? Clearly they are not properly engaged, have not been introduced to compelling material, or have some kind of learning disability that prevents them from fully enjoying the activity.
But when a kid mentions disliking math, adults begin to swap war stories. I am now incredibly conscious about how I talk about math and science around kids. I get extremely animated – even more so than about the topics I am particularly knowledgeable or excited about. Even one little side comment that is nothing to you can change a child’s entire perception.
I often think I would have made a hell of an engineer or computer scientist or geologist. The signs were there all through my K-12 years. My personality certainly is suited to those career paths. And yet, I was steered toward law. Don’t get me wrong – I would have made an excellent lawyer if the law market hadn’t hit rock bottom and made it a poor investment (for me), but never once was a career in the sciences (other than being a doctor) mentioned to me.
Is it a gendered thing? Because I was a smart girl, was I directed toward a career based on my more “feminine” qualities? I think that holds some weight. I remember in elementary school getting strange looks and comments when I talked about wanting to be a neurosurgeon. Granted, that could have been because I also mentioned owning a combination pet and book store on the side (in my spare time, of course), but the comments about considering nursing were not posed to the little boys who wanted to be doctors in my 1st grade classroom.
The men and women who researched the drugs that killed my cancer somehow got around the cultural bend to dislike math. What was different for them?
Sometimes, at an ever increasing pace, I consider going back to school for pre-med requirements or pursuing a post-bach in computer science versus my current MBA in healthcare management. Math (and science, which I always enjoyed but did not pursue to the highest because of the math components) based careers seem to give the most opportunity to change the world on a grander scale. That’s something I never understood until I was past what I felt was the age to pursue it.
It’s just a thought to ponder. I, for one, will be forever thankful that the researchers who helped develop my drugs and my treatment plans did choose math instead.