Friday, February 10, 2012

Quantifying the Unknown

I have a recurring dream: I am in college, or law school - sometimes high school - and I have not attended classes all semester. I don't know where my locker is, let alone the combination, and I'm not sure where the classrooms are. I certainly don't know what material we have covered. It's exam time, and I know I won't even be able to find the classroom so I can take the exam. I know that if I don't pass the exam, I will not be able to graduate, so I have to find the main office and I can ask them where my classes are. I wander around the school, often in that slow, stunted, underwater way, and get nowhere as the minutes of the exam period tick by.

One fun twist on last night's version of the dream is that while I was digging around in my materials, looking for any clue as to my class schedule, I found an application for an internship with Billy Collins. Despite that nice surprise, I still woke up nervous and flummoxed.

The class I fail in my dreams is usually math, which is absolutely predictable if you know me at all. I have never done well in math, and as a result, I have serious math anxiety. I can grade papers and calculate percentages, but anything more complex than that brings on the shakes. So when I woke up this morning at 4:32 A.M., drenched in sweat, I decided to return to the place of my defeat (again) and go back to school.

Fortunately, the math teacher at my school is amazing. She's the math teacher I wish I'd been lucky enough to have when I was in middle school. She's organized, demanding, witty, and kind, and every time I poke my head into her classroom, her students are enjoying themselves.

I know! That was a new concept for me, too.

I checked the middle school schedule and realized I have a prep period during her Algebra I classes on Wednesday and Friday, so starting next week, I'm back in school. I will have my own textbook, and I will even try to do some of the homework once I catch up to the kids (if that even happens).

It's time to put my money - well, my pride, I suppose - where my mouth is. I encourage my students to be brave, diligent, and never back down from an intellectual challenge. I try to model a love of education, a genuine thirst for knowledge that drives what I read, watch, and listen to. They know I am a frequent buyer at The Teaching Company, and that I listen to lectures on my iPod when I stack wood, fold laundry, and chop vegetables for dinner. Currently, I'm listening to a course on the evolution of the English language, and I love to share the tidbits I've gleaned with my students. They know I listen to courses on English, history, and science, but they also know about my math aversion. They joke about it. I joke about it. But it's not really that funny; it's actually quite sad.

I am hoping that my efforts to remedy my math anxiety will put weight behind my words. I hate math, yes. I hate the obsessive attention to plusses and minuses. I hate the inflexibility of numbers. But the excuse that "my brain just does not work that way" doesn't cut it when I simultaneously tell my students that they can do anything - anything - they want to do.

Well, dammit, so can I.

Part II of my math odyssey can be found here.


  1. What a terrific idea ... and what better way to show your students you're serious about leaping into the unknown!

  2. OH MY GOD! This is totally me! I'm sure we're not alone, but these are my recurring dreams--over and over, for years: the forgotten classes and forgotten locker number.

    And math? If it's anything beyond simple addition and subtraction, just kill me. Now.

    I tried desperately to tell my own children they could do anything. But I'm afraid there's something called genetics...

  3. You go, teacher girl. And if you need an English-teacher friendly Algebra assist now and then, you've got my number. (As long as you help me if I ever get the courage to try sports.)

  4. same dream (i always end up in my high school's admin offices, going through the filing cabinets that stayed behind the receptionist/principal's assistant's desk.)

    same math anxiety

    of course, the idea of returning to an algebra class is more anxiety than i can imagine. cheers to you; such a brave soul!

  5. Good for you! I'm hoping my daughters don't cotton on to my math anxiety.

  6. I really think this is awesome. Good for you. Please let us know how it goes.

  7. I loved loved LOVED algebra in high school. Have always wanted to take an algebra class as an adult (I know... weird). Need to see where I can find one. (also, I scored way higher on my math SATs than my verbal, and I'm a writer. Go figure)