Are you afraid of math ? | On my fear of mathematics

I am more scared of mathematics than pooping in my pants. Dreary from lack of sleep and the summer heat as I lie on my bed twisting and turning unable to catch a wink of sleep I indulge in a little catharsis, the results of which I will humor you with.

I’ve always been a suppressor of problems rather than the rise to the challenge type. My core strengths lie in filibustering, procrastination and finding improbable shortcuts. More out of the box thinking and less of the opposite. I was left to mushroom unchecked with ADD/ADHD during my childhood. Always the kind to seek shelter under the umbrella of defective neurotransmitters today is a good day as any to come clean.

There are things which seem incredible to most men who have not studied mathematics. ~ Aristotle

I never remember being really fascinated with math as a Kid. I was more interested in science. The one only time I was curious was when my elder brother was being caned by dad for clandestinely copying answers to homework problems on decimals from the solutions manual.

In second grade we had mathematics problems on addition and subtraction. The stupid problems were never straight forward like 1 + 1 is equal to what they were rather ram gave me one mango. I slapped ram for every mango ram gave me. ram gave me ten mangoes. how many times did I slap ram. I was very poor at English as well. Combine English and Math you have a below average second graders nightmare. I remember that one time after the math final I caught hold of the class topper and wrote down answers to the questions. memorized the answers. erased the answers. and when questioned by dad repeated like a parrot what the class topper had told me. I managed second and third grade in this fashion. Well my marks in math were surprisingly above average.

A little bit of history. My dad was a Scientist during those days and we lived in a colony with other Scientist families. All the kids went to the same school. In such an environment academic comparisons with neighborhood kids was imminent. My dad was bit of a prodigy and as his sperm we too were expected to be. The brother latter on turned out to be a John Nash kind of beautiful mind types. I did not.

When he was a Scientist dad focused his energies completely on my Brother almost crushing him in fatherly affection. He would take him to his labs, make him do experiments yada yada. I was more left under the care of my mother who let me play in my colorful imaginary worlds and fight over WWF trump cards stats on chest and biceps with the other kids. She noticed I had a problem when I couldn’t repeat the multiplication table beyond 3. Enter Dad.

When it came to me Dad had an one key for all locks kind of solution – Caning and tuitions. I have borne so much canning that I sometimes tell myself I can survive a police interrogation. Throwing money at a problem doesn’t make it go away for I had 3 different tuitions for Mathematics alone and still sucked.

I hold no malice towards my father for all those beatings. The way he saw it was that I was too lazy to learn rather than I may have a learning/attention problem. When dad got promoted to a management cadre he had loads of free time on his hands and dedicated his energies in straightening me out. I was in fifth grade now. The math got tougher and the beatings got worse. It was the same routine. 5 am to 8 am one on one math session with dad. He would give me a sum to solve. I would be afraid to make mistakes. One slight mistake. whack! tears. continue to solve. mistake. whack! I would take an average of ten whacking to arrive at an half baked solutions, This method though effective in making me complete homework in time taught me zilch. I was more afraid of mathematics than ever. Afraid of getting whacked. afraid of making mistakes. once I literally peed my pants anticipating dad’s whack. Often after a math exam I would beg, plead my brother to  solve the paper for me before we went home so that dad wouldn’t hit me when I got down to solving the paper in his presence.

There was this one time when my brother solved such a question paper and gave it to me. I saw his answers and began crying refusing to go home for I knew  I had definitely failed the exam (it dint occur to me for even a single minute that he might be wrong) I sat by the road crying in situ. My dad came walking by an hour latter saw me hunched over dint say a word and left. I was ashamed to show myself to him.

In Srikakulam (Andhra Pradesh, India) a guy who is afraid of mathematics and shirks away from it is called a ‘lekkala donga’ (literal translation mathematics coward) This was the title that all my relatives welcomed me with every time I paid them a visit. You see a failure at mathematics calls for universal castigation. I was constantly chided that I would end up in fine arts (at a time when I had no effing clue what fine arts was !) if I dint pull my socks up soon.

This was the decisive time when I began associating mathematics with pain, suffering and insult consciously and subconsciously. And have continued doing so for the remainder of my academic life; maybe even till today.

Unlike English, History or even Art, for Mathematics I never had a proper mentors. All I had to look up to were these brilliant kids in my class who seemed to score 100 on 100 every single time/ always shooting up hands in Math class with ready answers. A person good at mathematics became/is a rock star for me. I revered them.

Whenever I would be called upon to solve a problem on the board I would have palpitations which were surprisingly absent when I was called upon to explain the Rise of the British Raj in India.

 I’ve had many mathematics teachers over the years. None of them has made a lasting impression on me for their teaching, rather I remember each one of them clearly for their quirks and funny accents. All my mathematics teachers have been interested in only nurturing the cream of the crop; I don’t hold any bile against them for this. In a class of so many students the outliers are the ones that bring name and fame to a teacher.

In fact I trusted more in GOD to pass an exam. Before a test I would pray extra hard, religiously and deliriously, try to reason/bribe the most powerful force in the universe with a few pieces of candy and the noble act of abstaining from meat for a day; every time, for every exam. Maybe this is the root for my religious understanding of GOD; as a giver/enabler of passable marks in mathematics.

Sometimes when the time to hand over the answer sheets would near I would send up a fervent prayer to the souls of the examiners correcting my paper to be gentle and understanding. I used the ‘OM on top of margin’ as an talisman to ward off failing marks until it was banned by the Ministry of Magic.

In my 10th standard state board exams when I scored a 95 on 100 in mathematics I was shocked myself and everyone else. Dad felt I had come through finally. But I had a dirty secret. Little did he know that by exam time I had memorized the entire question bank of the previous 10 years down to the last decimal point. In an unimaginative exam system like this I was bound to succeed with  rote learning. Just by virtue of scoring a 95 in math overnight I had become a  beacon of hope for many parents with children in my same mathematics situation. They felt that if I could do it with countless tuitions and canning then their kids too could do it. Me joining the Math-Physics-Chemistry stream was a bygone conclusion. I dint have a say in the matter.

The bigger test of my mathematical acumen was on the horizon in the form of the unholy troika of ‘EAMCET/ IIT / AIEEE’. It was boot camp from day one. I hit the ground running. A series of tests and then being sorted into sections based on marks gained in said tests and start cramming for dear life. Marks in weekly tests earned or lost you your street cred.

I dint’ qualify for IIT. Got ranked high in AIEEE (getting ranked high works the other way around in India :P) Scraped through EAMCET.

In the ranks and marks induced mayhem my deep-rooted problems with Mathematics were never addressed but I did no good and subdued them. Engineering was a joke. I was never cut out to be an engineer. Though I was good at visualizing stuff it dint matter when it couldn’t be reproduced or reinforced with numbers. Take note though I had never failed in mathematics at any point during my academic life always managing with at least a notch above barely pass; that was about to change. I failed mathematics in the very first year of engineering. It was a rude awakener which brought to mind what at some point in the past one of my teachers had said,  “The loftiest edifices need the deepest foundations.” Mathematics became an nightmare for me and worst of all I was in a branch where mathematics was going to be my bread and butter (mechanical engineering) The next three years were an uphill task but the beauty of a flawed academic system that recognizes marks on a transcript more and less the ability to actually engineer saved me. Copy, cheat, beg, borrow, rote were instruments I applied but eventually sailed out with a degree proclaiming me an engineer. I am sure If I allowed to design a strut for a bridge in real life on the merit of me holding an engineering degree I am sure to kill someone.

I am sure there are many kids today in the same situation I was who are having a tough time in school taming the mythical mathematical monster. I weep for thee.  Nut up, life is going to be a bitch.

Have I overcome my fear of Mathematics ? Somewhat, because along the journey of my life I figured the direction my career was headed in dint require complex math; with Ms-Excel and a scientific calculator my camouflage is complete.   But I owe it as a responsibility to my future generations to right the wrongs; to introduce math the right way; to embolden the joy of discovery. Today on a whim I checked out Khan academy. A few hours spent on the site I was moved to near tears. This is the way mathematics was supposed to be taught to me. To  understanding rather than force the mind to remember, to  derive formulas rather than learn by heart.

Proof is an idol before whom the pure mathematician tortures himself.  ~Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World

further reading : New York Times (Education) : Are you afraid of Math ?