Not Good at Math

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My six-year-old, Rowan, was using an online math program this afternoon. He worked hard to figure out an answer, got it right, and then exclaimed, “I’m good at math!”

And he is. He’s not a savant or anything. Maybe not even particularly gifted, although casual coversation leads me to believe he might grasp mathematical concepts in an advanced way. But right now, he’s laying down some basic kindegarten-first grade arithmetic skills, working at a pace that suits him, and having fun, and so he feels good about it.

I was in second grade when I learned I was not good at math.

This came as something as a shock to me, as my year in first grade had taught me little except that I was smart but didn’t use my time wisely.

(For years, on a tiny bulletin board above the kitchen sink in our home was a little business card given to children who had demonstrated some good behavior or exemplary moment. My teacher, Mrs. Young, had written, “Elizabeth [she never used my nickname] finished her work today.” Yes, I was bored, and yes, I most likely have ADHD.)

So to be in second grade and have the teacher–my favorite ever, Mrs. Coltin–tell my parents that I wasn’t doing well and needed to practice with flash cards was devastating and so stressful that I ended up repeating second grade. Really.

Clearly, I was not good at math.

I went to an exceptionally challenging and well-regarded preparatory high school, and needed extra help just to pass my math classes.

Clearly, I was not good at math.

I took the SATs, and there were problems I literally had no idea how to solve without spending the entire testing period doing trial and error.

Clearly, I was not good at math.

Despite a few instances of evidence to the contrary (my SAT score was decent; I took an IQ test in early adulthood that showed I was above average in mathematical reasoning skills), that message stuck with me until fairly recently, when I started researching educational methods while considering homeschooling my younger children.

You know what we learned in second grade math? Multiplication. You know how they checked to see if we’d gotten it? TIMED TESTS. Holy f-in stress, Batman. I’m not sure if there was actually a ticking kitchen timer thing, but that’s what I remember.

Here’s a sheet of problems. Flip it over when I say go. Ready, go! Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. “Wait, what’s 7×3 again?” Tick-tick-tick-tick. “Ugh, 6×8?” Tick-tick-tick. “Grrr, there are so many problems left! The time is almost up! What the heck is 4×3?”


Time’s up. Put down your pencil.


(Ok, my little goody-two-shoes second grade brain probably didn’t even know that word then, and even if I did I wouldn’t have even dared think it, nevermind say it, but the feeling was there nonetheless).

I totally knew those multiplication problems, and even if I didn’t, I knew how to multiply, and could figure it out if I couldn’t recall the answer right away. Which is really the point, right?

Even now, my math brain shuts down under pressure. Just a few weeks ago I over-tipped at a seafood take-out place because they were under-staffed and busy and there were people waiting behind me. I multiplied right, but then I added wrong. I only realized on my drive home.

And high school? My fancy-shmancy prep school (which, don’t get me wrong, I dearly love and am proud to have attended) taught math in word problems.

That’s it.

They made their own textbooks, bound in colored folders, page after page of word problems. Ten to fifteen per page, each based on the previous page and skill you were supposed to figure out by solving the problem. No examples. No formulas. (However, they very intentionally, even back then, did not gender one single person in those problems. Every single name was gender-neutral. That I can appreciate, even if I still don’t know how to best help Alex in the desert get to the convenience store.)

This is not how my brain works. Give me a formula, and I can apply it. Explain it to me, and I can understand it (usually). But expect me to come up with it organically? Nope. Not happening. Especially not with the added stress of trying to live up to ridiculously gifted and/or educationally privileged kids surrounding me.

Actually, that’s not true. I’ll figure something out, it’s just much more intricate and complicated that the “right” way to do it, and takes ten times longer.

But hey, you know what? I am good at math, or reasonably so. Give me a clear head and no time pressure, and I got it. I play Cosmic Wimpout and can add up the dice just as quickly as my math-headed spouse. I can calculate measurements and area and all kinds of things, and if I can’t–or don’t feel like it–my handy-dandy phone can help. I understand the concept, so I see no shame in using the tools at hand to double-check or speed things up.

So guess what.

My kids will use their fingers or cubes as long as they need to. They will never take timed tests unless they are doing so for fun to challenge themselves. We will explore math together to understand concepts rather than memorizing rote facts to spit back out…which, ok, might allow them to be able to come up with formulas rather than just apply them. Or not. Which is fine.

Because my kid is good at math.

The Author

I'm a quirky queer (she/her/hers) who is constantly questioning. I'm helping some young humans grow up, and trying not to do too much damage in the process. I am a fierce and fiercely feminist pastor. I'm doing my best at home-making, home-renovating, home-steading, and home-schooling. My rainbow life consists of red shoes, conversations around orange fires, yellow-legged chickens, going green, blue moods, indigo jeans, and periodically purple hair.

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