I can remember spending enough evenings during 8th grade in a frustrated fury, throwing my algebra book across the room, to know I didn’t grow up believing I had any real mathematical talent. I didn’t hate math, but I didn’t love it, either. It was just something to be endured, and if I liked it, it was only because it was so finite. I knew I was done with my math homework when my 25 problems were done. Language arts assignments were far more amorphous (especially for a budding editor). I took calculus (which I almost failed) and statistics (because all psych majors had to take it) in college, and that was it, whereas I took so many English electives, I suddenly realized in my fourth year I had accidentally minored in it. Most of my life, I would have told you I’m an “English person,” not a “math person.” Nevertheless, here I am today, an editor whose subject areas are math and science.
My colleagues and friends will tell you I’m like a late-in-life, obnoxious, born-again fundamentalist. I run around pointing out every area in their lives in which they’re “really doing math, you know.” I tell them there’s no such thing as an “English person” or a “math person,” as both are left-brain functions. I tell them they just don’t like math, because math was taught in such boring and uninspiring ways. I want to spread the Good News. I want everyone to come to Math. I want them to know it’s not okay to Hate Math.
One of my favorite series of questions is “Have you ever gone to a party and asked people if they’ve read any good books lately? Do they ever turn to you and say, ‘Oh, don’t talk to me about reading. I was lost once we got past The Cat in the Hat,’ or ‘I can’t read; you’re either a reading person or you’re not; I’m not?’” Of course not. Yet, start talking about math at a party, and more likely than not (unless you’re at a CalTech or M.I.T. faculty party), people will launch into discussions of how horrible math is, bonding over the fact that they just never could get it. And they’re not the least bit ashamed. Even if someone can’t read well, you’d be hard-pressed to find him or her admitting so in a crowd.
I thought I’d gotten over my own tendencies to bond in this way until Dorothy asked us all in a recent post whether we’re slow or fast readers. I immediately responded that I’m a slow reader, and I have absolutely no problem telling anyone this. I’ve never equated it with some sort of lack in my reading ability. It’s just a fact: I’m a woman; I’m an American; and I’m a slow reader. However, give me a series of math problems, and if I can’t solve them all quickly (and, preferably, in my head), I immediately equate that with a lack of mathematical ability. Somehow, it’s been ingrained in me that in order to be really good in math, I have to have a calculator-like ability to pop out answers.
Obviously, my authors are people who can do math and do it well, and I’ve noticed a reluctance on my part to do any real math alongside them. I don’t mind if they give me problems over which I can puzzle on my own, but I don’t want them to see how I really “can’t do math,” because the process is a long one for me. I become “Sally-Who-Was-Saved-Yesterday” trying to answer questions posed by Billy Graham. Maybe I haven’t really been saved after all.
So, I’m going to have to change my ways, if I’m going to live up to my new born-again status. I’m going to have to start proclaiming myself a slow problem-solver, just as I proclaim myself a slow reader. And what a nice thing to be. It gives me the chance to stop and smell the roses along the way when I’m trying to figure out if we can fit the new couch through the front door. One day, I might even get to have my own tent revivals, helping bring poor, lost “English souls” to Math.