Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hey, they're tryin' to learn for free! Get 'em!

Here's a thing you may not know about me.

I don't like math. Actually, that's not quite accurate. I genuinely fear math. It creates a visceral reaction in my guts. There are few things in this world that I fear as much. I think the list goes:

1. Death of a family member
2. Shark attack
3. Math
4. Nuclear Holocaust

It's really pretty sad. I stopped taking math in 11th grade. I never took a single math class in college, unless you count statistics. And truthfully, you can't even count stats, because I cheated my way through the class.

I was reading a post at You Look Really Great, where she was talking about her GMAT class, and for some god-forsaken reason she felt the need to write out the math problem that came up in the class. I got dizzy. I wanted to lie down. I almost threw up. Math is the real reason I've never taken the GRE. I'm terrified of it. If my career path ever gets to the point where I need a graduate degree, I'm completely screwed, because I have no shot in hell of passing the math section. Fortunately, this does not appear to have happened yet. But people (aka my dad) keep telling me that I should take it soon, before I forget everything I've learned.

Right. Folks, I'm 32 years old. I haven't taken a math class in 15 years, and the last one I took was a borderline-remedial class. It was a step away from a class where the kids had to wear helmets and mittens. A real cork-on-the-fork type of crew. I'm pretty sure what little useful mathematical knowledge I had is looooong gone.

Ironically, I consider myself to be a relatively smart person. I did well in English and History. I majored in Political Science in college, and did pretty well in those classes. But Math, and Science, well - they're my kryptonite. Is there a point to this story besides my telling you what an idiot I am? Absolutely. As usual, I just have a roundabout way of getting to it.

Here's the thing. I went to what is perhaps one of the top ten public high schools in the country. I mean it. It was a palace of educational opportunity. It looked like a goddamn prison, but it was an amazing school. For the most part, the teachers were brilliant. We had teachers with PhD's, we had some truly revolutionary educators there. My history and english classes were unbelievable. It was true classic discourse. Small class sizes, a broad variety of books and learning tools, all of that great stuff. Same goes for (from what I heard) the math and science classes. We had kids who would take five or six Advanced Placement classes at a time. It was really quite remarkable.

But, as with everything in this world, there was dead weight. Both teachers and students. I was a weird mix - history, english, philosophy - I was a rock star. Math and science? Not so much. But the truth is, schools such as mine focus so much on the success stories, that frequently kids got left behind. In a way, I was one of the ones that got left behind. In junior high school, I was actually pretty good at math. I won't go so far as to say I liked it, but I could handle it. Freshman year in high school, I didn't adjust all that well. For a variety of unimportant reasons. I had a biology teacher who had no patience for the kids who didn't get it right away, and a math teacher who was very similar. Teachers who got impatient when you held up the class with questions.

And so what happens? You stop asking questions. And what happens next? You stop paying attention. And then you flat-out stop giving a damn. I ended up focusing on the other subjects, and floundered in math and science. At the end of the year, the teachers are responsible for recommending whether or not you go into honors-level classes, regular class, or the class for "challenged" kids.

Guess where I ended up? Now again, I'm not placing sole blame on the teacher. I could have done more. I could have studied more at night. I could have gotten a tutor. But I also should have been able to ask a simple question without feeling like I was going the wrong way down a one-way street. So I went off to what my friends called "crayola math". And never came back. Because the truth is this: It is unbelievably easy to take a step back. It is near impossible to take a step forward after that's happened.

Now I'm not an educational policy specialist. And my story is far from the worst the world has to offer. I mean, I had opportunities that other kids couldn't dream of. And to a certain extent, I squandered them. I admit that. In the end, I turned out OK. Despite a pretty substantial affinity for alcohol and hallucinogens, I managed to get into a decent college, and now I have a pretty good job that I genuinely like.

This was not one written to ask for sympathy. I don't want it and don't deserve it. But the fact of the matter is it only took one teacher, one class, to shake my faith in my abilities. Sure, I took care of the rest, but here's what scares me about the bigger picture: I went to one of the best high schools in the country. And all it took was one slight push in the wrong direction to begin the process of derailing. Kids are more fragile that we sometimes think. It doesn't take much to push them down the spiral.

What's it like at the other schools? What's it like at the schools where they can't afford books, or spend more money on metal detectors and security guards then they do on actual educating? And worse yet (and here's where my point comes full circle), what about the teachers and administrators and policy engineers that don't give a shit? I mean, let's be real about it. The world has very few Michelle Pfeiffers and Edward James Olmos's teaching out there. There aren't a hell of a lot of great teachers working in inner city Chicago, or South Central L.A., or in backwoods Mississippi (with a few exceptions, of course. Who's motivating those kids? Who's making them hungry? Because that's the thing. Education should make you hungry. It should work off of the natural curiosity of kids, and make them hungry to learn something new, something different. Solving a problem should be about wanting to know the answer, not doing it because you have to. Our educational system should be designed around that premise, it should be smart and innovative and creative. It should teach kids to want to learn. Schools should be palaces, teachers should be ridiculously well-paid. Goddamnit, we should be burying our schools in money and opportunity. But at some schools, it must sometimes feel like nothing but constant pushes in the wrong direction.

I have cousin who is probably a genius. He can do anything with a battery and some wiring. He's like freakin' MacGyver. When he was twelve years old he would routinely disassemble his father's stereo, just to see if he could put it back together. Because he was genuinely curious. It's the type of thing that should be encouraged, should be fed constantly. Instead, it was suffocated. By both his parents and his teachers. And again, he played a role in it. He fucked around, he got into trouble. Instead of learning to develop a more efficient car, he was in the clink for stealing them. But I can't help but feel that if sometime in his younger days, if someone had caught on, had tried to encourage that ability, he could have been more than a cable repairman.

I think programs like Teach For America are a great idea, despite it's problems. I know it's hard for bright-eyed recent college grads to get stuck in the Mississippi Delta, using thirty year-old books and broken pencils. And, of course, what happens after two years? What are the chances those teachers are sticking around, or even finishing the program? Not good, is my guess. When I was a couple years out of college I worked at a homeless shelter for kids. Not easy work. The average case worker lasted about 8 months. It's hard, dirty, and thankless work. Teaching in some places is probably like that. I think that most teachers start out bright-eyed and motivated, and over time, get frustrated with the human condition in general, with the lack of adequate supplies and support, and burn out. Sometimes it'll take 2 years. Sometimes it'll take 20.

Unsurprisingly, I don't have a solution. Well, I do have one solution - money. You'd be surprised how effective money can be in solving the problem. Better teacher salaries, repair of schools, better materials, etc. Of course, we're currently headed in the opposite direction, since our beloved president cut the federal education budget for the first time in more than ten years. Just like he cut the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor. Guess where most of the increases are? Yeah, I'm shocked too.

Anyway, how did a post on my failure at math turn into a criticism of the government? Well, because it's not meant to be about me. It's not about the one kid who had everything and wasted it. It's about the millions of potentially hungry kids out there (figuratively and literally) who aren't getting what they need. The kids we're wasting, who, with just the right push, just a couple of better opportunities, could do something incredible.


onthevirg said...

Funny and thought provoking. Good stuff man.

Daphne said...

Great post. For some reason, I always did well in school, although trigonometry tripped me up and calculus completely fucked me up. I enjoyed certain science classes - LOVED chemistry but almost died of boredom in biology.

Anyhoo, my family dynamics are rather interesting as I am the youngest of nine. A couple of my brothers did quite well in school, but a couple struggled, too. Your post makes me wonder if something went awry for them as well, particularly the two who did well, as they hated school by the time they graduated, and didn't go to college (and didn't do much else, either).

My sister hates math as well, and just finishing telling me how she's barely passing statistics (she's going for her undergrad and thisclose to graduating). She also had to take college algebra 3 times to pass, and the third time she paid someone else to do her homework. So rest assured, my dear TK, you have a kindred spirit.

dmbmeg said...

i would take math any day over anything to do with reading or writing.

isn't it ironic that i have a blog now? i attribute that to more of the fact that i want attention, rather than be able to express myself through written word. that's what i have beer for.

And the answer to that trig question is 5cm. Duh. (now i'm just rubbing salt in the wound, huh?)

litelysalted said...

I consider myself to be brilliant (ahem) and I have always been terrified of math. I don't know... I wouldn't beat yourself up too bad. I grew up in a burgeoning area in the Philly suburbs. My high school was overcrowded and the teachers were fairly mediocre and didn't give a crap. Our art program was laughable at best but I still got into one of the best design programs in the country. Much like you, I had a drive for some things, and indifferences towards others. Math and science didn't make sense to me so I didn't make an effort.

But people (aka my dad) keep telling me that I should take it soon, before I forget everything I've learned.

That is TRUE! The last math classes I took were a non-credit developmental class Freshman year of college (to which I was forced because of my poor math scores) followed by a for-credit Geometry class for Elementary Ed majors, where we mostly had to identify shapes. (Swear to god!) Anyway I'm getting off track, but my point is that I DO NOT EVEN KNOW MY TIMES TABLES. But strangely? I'm ok with that.

Manny said...

Yeah, I SUCK at math. Luckily I'm devastatingly handsome, so I've been able to skate by on my good looks and sexual prowess.

I am returning to college this fall, so I'm intrigued to find out which of my instructors (if not all) offer me passing grades in exchange for my "services".

*SIGH* The pressures of being this attractive......

TK said...

OTV - thanks.

Daphne - Like I said, it doesn't take mu- WHAT? Did you say NINE children? Jesus, when did your parents have time to eat?

Dmbmeg - You are a sick individual and should seek professional help.

LS - What's a times table?

Manny - Have you been eating paint chips again? Dammit Manny, we talked about this.

slouchmonkey said...

Yes. More money would help. Ultimately, can parents devote more time to encouraging education and being involved in their childrens lives? Don't know? Will I? Most definitely.

This coming from "Captain Disruptive" in High School, mostly because I was younger than everybody else and immature.

Square the sides. Add them together. Then take the square root of that number. Should be 25, of which the square root is 5.

Ranylt said...

Man, once again, it's like a mirror, this place. (That, or I just look for anything that remotely resembles me and latch onto it.) I too had straight As (even perfect "100" scores, which were possible in Quebec where I was schooled) in languages, history, art, media and geography--and barely passed math. I stopped taking it at grade 10. Latin and Koine Greek were no problem at 17, but I couldn't change a decimal to a fraction to save my life. I also had a teacher who just plain gave up on me. You know, with a PhD, an IQ that has never measured lower than 145 (for what those things are freaking worth), and a Mensa mom who is a whiz at math and logic, and who programmed mainframes in the 1960s, it doesn't add up. I call it math dyslexia--fear is the thing and it makes you see everything backwards (and not in a good, innovative way). You just freeze. But hopeless? I'm not sure anymore.

1) I'm married to a Physicist so I have all the math support I need now. He shows me things. I started up after 15 years. I'll never be great, but I realized it's JUST a mental block, nothing more. It's actually easier to learn when you have adult confidence. I would have completely denied the possibility six years ago.

2) GRE be damned--if grad school is really calling, come on up to Canada where we pish such things. Tuition just might be a bit cheaper, too, and the edumacation will be worthwhile.

Vanessa said...

Seriously. I not only know that the answer is 5 but I know you use the Pythagorean theorum to get the answer. And, I have a degree in English and failed algebra. Twice. C'mon now, son.

Daphne said...

Hee, TK. You read correctly. Youngest of nine. Technically, I wasn't supposed to be here - my parents were 40 when I was born, and my mom thought she was done birthin' babies. Yeah....she got her tubes tied after I was born. Heh.

And no, I am not at all spoiled.

Pythagorean theorum - that's geometry, right? Yeah, I was always an Algebra type of gal. I convinced a very cute Lebanese boy to help me through geometry. He was VERY good at math, and very nice. Did I mention cute? Smoked too many cigarettes, though. Otherwise, totally husband material.