Today was one of those rainy, sleepy September days at the shore. The island is pretty quiet, just the occasional sounds of cars skimming over the partially flooded streets. For some godawful reason, I decided to redo my personal budget. Cue horrible, gripping dread and visions of future self arm-wrestling Delilah for the last bits of private-label cat food.*
Visions of abject poverty aside, what really drives up my anxiety is the numbers themselves. Some people take comfort in working with numbers. They’re specific, finite, and bound by rules created by men in togas (and then spectacles). To me, numbers are barely discernible hieroglyphics just waiting to be (mis)interpreted.
Words. Words have always come easy for me. I’ve always liked writing and reading. In school, I could knock out a English Comp paper the morning it was due. But put a “two trains are leaving the station at noon” problem in front of me and I’d be rendered as motionless as a cloven-hoofed ungulate startled by the gleam of an oncoming automobile.**
A friend told me her 8 year-old twins are really excited to learn division. They are so in love with the very grown-up idea of it that, when faced with any other school problem, they ask her, “Do you think we should use division? Would that help?”
This story makes me laugh through stomach cramps because I think I missed school the day they introduced long division in 3rd grade. I have this memory of being on the phone with a classmate (ie. a fellow 8 year old) who was trying, unsuccessfully, to explain remainders to me. She just kept saying, “well, you just have to write the letter R on the paper.”
Somehow I made it through long division and fractions and decimals and whatever else you do in grade school. In 8th grade, we had something called “pre-Algebra” taught to us by a ginger-haired pervert who wore a vest and leered at the girls. I came across his photo in our yearbook recently and the hairs on my arm stood up.
By the time I got to high school, my mathematics journey became fraught. I was excelling everywhere except math where I was in real danger of failing. Algebra made no sense. Why were there suddenly more letters in my already very confusing math homework? I had already learned “R” — how many more were there??
I was completely undone by chemistry and “balancing equations.” I was befuddled by the seemingly random application of subscript numbers. Also, it seemed unnecessary to keep balancing these equations once they’d already been balanced. Couldn’t science just freeze them there? Why make a room full of 15 year-old nose pickers do it? And, by the way, what, or WHO, was throwing these equations out of wack in the first place?*** This seems to be an important problem for science to solve. If you know who it is, please tell me so I can write them a strongly-worded letter.
In college, I dropped out of the lowest level math class — twice— before finally finagling my way to a barely passing grade so I could get my diploma.
So, yeah. Numbers give me a little bit of anxiety. Anyone else?
*When I was a kid, we used to call it “generic” but everything is so fancy now! Also, note in my awfulized future-self vision, I can’t even afford generic dog food — I’ve resorted to store-brand Friskies.
**My writing could aptly be described as “florid”.
***This experience stuck with me long into adulthood. Once, a man introduced himself to me at a party and said he was a chemist. I harangued him for 15 minutes about the injustice of unbalanced equations, demanding an explanation for this nonsense. He backed away very slowly.
Also, in my late 30s I discovered Khan Academy and, on a lark, took a 15-minute lesson on balancing equations. Turns out, I just had a really shitty chemistry teacher. This guy had me balancing equations in about 7 minutes. I remember none of it, of course, but for one brief, shining afternoon: I was a chemist.