I don’t like math.  Yeah, I know.  A lot of people don’t like math.  I don’t know why other people don’t like it, but I know why I don’t.

It’s not because it’s hard, or confusing – though it certainly can be – but I lay the blame at the feet of my fourth-grade teacher.

Before I go any further, let me just say that I have nothing but respect for teachers.  They have a hard job to do and I don’t want to take away from that.  Heck, my sister, who’s retired now, was a teacher.  She was, in fact, a math teacher, and a very good one, not to mention that some of my classmates from high school became teachers.  Those brave souls all get a bow of veneration from me.

But sometimes, I think there are folk who aren’t as cut out for it as others, and the following is why I blame my fourth-grade teacher for my dislike of math.

I don’t know the order in which kids are taught things in elementary school now, but when I was there (back in the ancient days, as my daughter would say, just after they invented water) long division was learned in the fourth grade.

Now, up until the fourth grade, I pretty much liked math, or rather arithmetic, as that’s what it is at that stage.  There was no public kindergarten in our school system at that time, and my family was much too poor to pay for a private one, so my mother, along with teaching me my ABC’s and to read, long before I ever started first grade, also taught me to count to a hundred and how to write my numbers, and to do simple additions and subtractions, so I had no problems with arithmetic.  Until fourth grade.  And I didn’t really have a problem with it then, however, apparently my fourth-grade teacher thought I did, which subsequently made me think I did.

She went over the long division method, showed the class how to work such problems, and gave us a sheet with four problems to take home, to be turned in the next day.  I remember being excited about learning something new, and that night, I eagerly worked my problems the way I’d been taught in class.  I showed my work to my mother, and she went over it and gave me a big hug for having all four problems correct.  I was happy.

The next day, we turned in our homework, and the teacher said she would go over our papers and give them back to us after lunch.  I looked forward to that big “A” I knew was going to be on my paper.

I got an “F”.

I saw some of the other kids’ papers, and nobody had an “A” but I was the only one with an “F”.

Well.  It was all I could do to keep from crying, and I was ashamed to take it home to my mother because what that “F” meant to me was, not only did I not understand how to work long division, neither did my mother, and that was something I just couldn’t fathom because I’d thought my mother was the smartest person in the world.  How could she have been so wrong?  Getting an “F” in something that she’d declared to be correct skewed my view of her intellect, and I never again showed her any of my homework.

When my mother asked about it, I lied and told her I got an “A”.  She, of course wanted to see it, so I told another lie and said I dropped the paper and it went down a sewer opening (see – I was already on my way to being a fiction writer!  I actually tore the paper to shreds and tossed it into a trashcan).  Bless her heart, she believed me.  Sigh.

It never occurred to me to ask the teacher why she’d given me the bad grade because back then (it was the nineteen-fifties – right after dirt came into being) you didn’t question your teacher when she gave you an “F”.  Normally, the teacher would tell you why, but for whatever reason, in this case, she never did (and I was so hurt that I never mentioned to to anybody.  Hey, I was eight years old – it just never occurred to me that I should).  By the time I figured it out, it was much too late – by then, I didn’t like arithmetic.  Which, in later years, had segued into disliking math.

In fact, I never got a decent grade in arithmetic the whole fourth grade year because there was always at least one long division problem included in any classroom work or homework, and I refused to work any of those, not even in class.  My reasoning was that since I’d gotten all those wrong at the beginning, and the teacher kept showing us how to do them the same way, then I must not be very smart in arithmetic.

The only reason I passed fourth grade was because I did well in everything else.  Fourth grade was also when we began doing simple fractions, and oddly enough, I didn’t have a problem with those, and the teacher, for some reason, never questioned why I could do those but not long division problems.

By the next year, I finally began to work the long division problems but by then I didn’t like arithmetic, and always rushed through any of it as fast as I could.  I never regained the confidence I’d had in myself for being able to do arithmetic prior to being introduced to long division, so I never knew if what I was doing was correct, and I never had the courage to ask.  My arithmetic grades ranged from so-so to pretty good, depending on how much time I took to work the problems.  I had a preference for reading and writing and I did very well in Language Arts – I could diagram the mess out of a sentence, and conjugate any verb in existence.  And in later grades I did great in History, Civics, English, Literature, etc.  Math?  Nope.

I have to admit: getting all those long division problems wrong really bugged me, and I never forgot the incident.  But it was a long time before I finally figured out why my teacher gave me an “F” on that first homework paper.  It was simple: I was the only one who’d gotten every problem correct, so she’d assumed someone had worked them for me and that I’d simply copied them over to my paper (I remember thinking: sorry Mom, you really were smart!)

The only reason I made that leap to understanding was because one day, years later in high school, I was sitting in a geometry class, wishing I was anywhere else, and noticed a classmate was copying off someone’s paper (Heh, no, not mine, somebody a whole better at it than I was), and it was as if a circuit closed in my brain, and I knew what had happened all those years ago.  No, it didn’t make me suddenly fall in love with math, but I knew with certainty why I didn’t like it (and, I still don’t).

Not liking it doesn’t mean I didn’t learn.  What it meant was that I never learned any more of it than what I had to in order to pass a class, and promptly forgot it as soon as I didn’t need it anymore.

And, who knows, if it hadn’t been for my fourth grade teacher, I might’ve been a great mathematician, or scientist, or…nah.  Who am I kidding?…I like to write science fiction and fantasy too much for that.  Besides, after seventh grade, I hated school.

But that’s another story.

Advertisements