Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Time Math and I Were Friends, Not Foes

Anyone who knows me knows how I feel about math...


I'm sure there is a story behind my math issues, but that is not this story.  This is a story about how for one brief period and time math and I were okay.

In college I ended up pursuing a Business Major.  That required me to take some math classes but thankfully not as much as one would think.  The highest level I had to complete was Math 111, College Algebra.  Because of my previous history with math I put off taking the class as long as I could, but eventually I reached the point where I had to get it done so I registered for the class.  It had been a while since I had taken any math (seriously, I think there is some kind of evil math monster that comes and gobbles up all the formulas and any math-related knowledge that was at one point in my brain) and I didn't remember anything.

It was an hour long Monday/Wednesday/Friday class.  At this time in my college life I was in a bit of trouble with my grades and academic standing (another story for another time) and with my math history I knew I had to not be a slacker.  I went to class, I took notes, I turned in the homework, and I took the quizzes.  Despite my efforts, I was struggling.  

After a few weeks, Professor Anderson (PA), asked to see me after class after.  I could count the number of times a professor had asked to see me after class on one hand.  I was nervous.  Math 111 was located in West House, a cute building that was once a private boarding home and was converted into a men's dorm and then finally classrooms and office space.  PA's had one of the office spaces upstairs in West House.  His office was small and cozy, and it looked exactly like I'd expect a math professor's office to look like-math books and notes everywhere but not in a hoarder kind of way.  He had an electric kettle on his desk which he flicked on as he sat down.  He asked me how I thought I was doing in the class.  He might as well have asked me this:

I told him I knew I was doing miserably.  He told me he could see I was working on getting to the answer, but just wasn't quit getting there.  I told him I have struggled with math since about middle school.  He nodded, as if it wasn't the first time he had heard that.  He told me he felt like I was trying, and making an effort and he wanted to see me succeed.  He told me he wanted to see me asking more questions when I wasn't understanding and reminded me that there were tutors available.  I didn't know what to say.  I was surprised that a professor cared enough to even talk to me, but also kind of mortified that a professor had actually noticed me.  I told him I would try to speak out more and look into working with a tutor and he said he would be able to tell as the class continued.  He told me he would touch base with me again, and warned me he would be calling on me in class if I didn't speak up.  Just what I always dreaded about classes.  I thanked him, and promised I would try harder.

And I did.  I looked into a tutor, but I couldn't connect with one that had hours of availability that worked with my class schedule.  I wasn't going to get any help there, I was going to have to speak up more in class.  As shy as I was, and as much as I hated calling attention to myself especially when I was not understanding something, I made the effort to ask questions.  PA was watching, and if he felt like I wasn't speaking up or asking for help when I should be, he would look at me after explaining something and ask if I understood or had any questions.  I took the midterm, and despite my efforts I knew I had done poorly.  

This stuff was just not sticking in my head.  As PA handed me my graded midterm he again asked me to meet him after class.  I looked at my grade and wanted to melt into the floor.  I was not going to pass this class.

After class I followed him up to his office.  In my head I was trying to come up with excuses but they all sounded so empty and there was no point in lying to him or trying to make it look better than it was.  He flicked on his kettle and looked at me.  I'm pretty sure I was flushed with shame.  I flushed with just about every kind of emotion, which makes it really hard to have any kind of poker face.  He started by assuring me he saw that I was trying, and he was glad I was asking questions because he saw other students grades improving even if mine weren't.  He told me he also saw my brain was working the problems in a different way which was an improvement from the start of the class, but I was still not getting all the way there.  All I could do was nod.  Then he surprised me with the offer.  

Essentially he offered me the chance to take no grade, like I hadn't even taken the class, so I wouldn't have the F affecting my grades.  My credits would take the hit, but to not have the class affect my GPA was like giving a starving person bread.  He only had one condition, I had to promise to retake his class.  With my precarious grades and standings I would have been a fool to say no.  I agreed, and assured him that I would register for his class next semester.  With that agreed to, he told me it was my choice if I wanted to continue to attend class or not.  I thought about it and decided it might be beneficial for me, given my history, if I sat in and continued trying to soak up what information I could.  I think he was pleased by that.  I continued to attend class, I took notes, I turned in some homework, and took quizzes.  It was nice not having the grade pressure anymore.  My quiz grades told me I made the right choice in accepting his offer.

The week before the final, while he was help guide the class towards expectations of what would be on the final, he pulled me aside as I was leaving and told me it was up to me if I wanted to continue with the study week and take the final.  I told him I was inclined to try, so I'd have an idea of where I needed to be.  He told me he was fine with whatever I wanted to do.  

I went to the final.  PA winked at me as he handed out the exams and told the class to behave while he went and made some tea.  The room was silent except for the sounds of pen/pencil on paper and calculator buttons being pushed.  I looked at the test, I think it was only a few pages of problems to solve but he wanted us to show all our work.  I sat there for maybe five minutes looking at the questions and realized I had a lot of work to get to this point when I took the class over.  I knew it was going to be the case, but it was still daunting to see how much I had not caught on and how much work it was going to be.  Then this beautiful thought struck me, I could leave.  I could simply get up, grab my bag, leave the test, and go back to my room.  As quietly as I could, I grabbed my bag and walked out of the classroom.  PA was sitting on the stairs with his tea and a stack of papers; he could see in the room without having to be in the room from his perch.  I stood just outside the room, out of sight of the class just long enough for him to smile and wink at me, and for us both to hear gasps of surprise from my classmates who couldn't believe I had just walked out.  I gave PA a big smile and a little wave and left West House.

Coolest college moment ever! (Yes,  this was even more cool than graduating!)

I did retake the class with him, and I did pass.  I was able to meet a few times with a tutor the second time around, and thankfully I had retained some information from the first time through the class.  I'm still not a math fan (sorry sweetheart), but Math 111 and PA did help math and I make some peace with one another.

*all images from someecards

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