By Monica Kendall
I love math.
That’s a strange thing to hear. I’m always taken aback when someone says that.
I tell people that I majored in math in college and usually all I hear is a long sigh followed by a drawn out, “I hate math!”
That’s a really strange thing to say to someone who has just told you what their passion is. But it’s part of how we relate to each other – talking about hating math. So when someone says this to me, I just smile because I understand. Math is hard. And it is nice to commiserate.
But, I don’t hate it anymore. Now, It relaxes me. It’s consistency calms me.
Haruki Murakami says it so well:
Math is like water. It has a lot of difficult theories, of course, but its basic logic is very simple. Just as water flows from high to low over the shortest possible distance, figures can only flow in one direction. You just have to keep your eye on them for the route to reveal itself. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to do a thing. Just concentrate your attention and keep your eyes open, and the figures make everything clear to you. In this whole, wide world, the only thing that treats me so kindly is math.
There is a flow that math takes, and there’s a flow you can enter when working on math problems. You might have experienced with something else like basketball, painting, or playing the guitar. It’s as if your brain shuts off and you’re entirely absorbed and present with what you’re doing.
But as with anything else, it takes practice to get to that point. Math takes practice. It’s not something you are usually inherently or immediately gifted with. As painting takes practice, as free throws take practice, math takes practice. You might need to solve for “y” a thousand times before it feels like you know what you’re doing.
Unfortunately, most of us grow up with this idea that math is something you must be built to do. I always assumed that I was not built to do it. Everyone said it was so hard. So when I didn’t understand it right away, I labeled my brain as a “non-math brain”. And when my teachers explained things to me, I would zone out at the first hint of a difficult concept.
“There she goes again talking about functions. This is where I’m just too dumb,” I would say to myself.
But I was not too dumb – I was getting in my own way.
One time, while I was slogging through a pre-calculus class and crying a lot as a result, I recognized that I had kind of a bad attitude. I realized that I was approaching math with expectations of failure and embarrassment. That expectation was fulfilling itself dutifully, as self-expectations tend to do. I was too afraid of failing or even of asking a stupid question to let myself learn.
So, I decided to pretend that I could do it and that I loved math. I began writing down everything my teacher put on the board to force myself to pay attention. I allowed myself to make mistakes so long as I learned from them. I asked questions in class as if everyone else was wondering the same thing (they were).
Pretty soon, I was fascinated! Small pieces were coming together for me, and I began to see math as a puzzle. This is when math started to feel like relaxation. The pressure had eased a bit, and I began to enjoy math for its own sake. I found that I could turn on my music and work on math problems for hours while having a pretty good time.
Math is now just about the simplest thing I can do. These days, the objectivity of math feels like a vacation from the subjective complexity of everything else happening around me.
I want everyone to have this much fun!
Monica Kendall (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an academic mentor for the ESM Group in Portland, OR.