What and Why is Math

Storyteller: Emma (she/her/hers), 28, Illinois

In 1st grade we had to do speed math tests - mostly addition and subtraction I think. We had to sit in silence for however long we had and do as many problems as quickly as possible. When time was up - however many problems you had finished and were correct determined your grade. I used to feel sick before these tests - the problems all seemed so arbitrary to me. I asked my mom for help and she would try to explain the problem with visuals and eventually I was able to grasp the task and memorize these problems but would still not understand the point. I didn't understand why we were adding 6 and 4 to make 10.

I got a bit better at math through school as I learned to memorize - but was still behind my classmates. I was enrolled in a gifted and talented program in 4th and 5th grade but had to take after school math courses. I failed my first test in the 5th grade and cried in front of everyone. I excelled everywhere else but could never fully grasp mathematical concepts. In high school this problem bled over into Chemistry and I hit a wall in Algebra I despite having a teacher I loved. I refused to take Calculus or any higher math courses in high school because I was so scared to ruin my GPA and took the minimum amount of math courses to graduate - all remedial level. These classes were slower paced and I was able to keep up, but I felt terrible because despite my grades getting a little better I still felt like I had failed. I was keeping up in all other subjects in AP classes, but was separated from my friends and it was all because I couldn't understand what everyone else seemed to get.

I never felt confident in any math class I've ever taken. Despite the note taking, study groups, great teachers, extra hours, and even computer programs designed to teach math "visually", I never fully understood how to apply what I was doing without memorizing a specific set of steps which were never always the same. Into college I barely passed my required math courses and skated by on terrible grades but still valid credits from summer school community college courses outside of my university. To this day I panic when I have to use math in a business setting.

So math has never clicked for me - and it's absolutely negatively impacted my confidence and self-worth throughout all my years in school. In hindsight I wish I was easier on myself and instead was able to focus more time and energy into the classes that I felt excited about; and more importantly I wish I was given the permission to reassess my personal priorities to what suits me instead of focus on where I had failed.

To this day I panic when I have to use math in a business setting.