All the Pegs in the Same Hole

I have a confession to make. Everything I am today, I shouldn’t be. Everything I have today, I shouldn’t have. I should never have graduated from high school, let alone gone to college and enjoyed any of the benefits of having graduated from college. Why? Because I suck at math. I always have, and as a result have always hated doing it.

In high school, I took just enough to graduate. To give you an idea of how much was required then, I never took Trigonometry or anything beyond it. I also skipped out of Physics. I barely, and I mean just barely, passed Algebra. And I went to a performing arts magnet school where I had to keep a certain overall average in order to stay off probation and participate in the performance groups I was a part of. I got more than my share of warnings, and spent at least one semester on probation that I can recall, because I was losing my battle with algebra at that time.

So, I can totally identify and sympathize with Gabriela Ocampo and her struggle with Algebra, which she was required to take in order to graduate.

I am haunted by Gabriela Ocampo.

Last year, she dropped out of the 12th grade at Birmingham High School in Los Angeles after failing algebra six times in six semesters, trying it a seventh time and finally just despairing over ever getting it. So, according to the Los Angeles Times, she “gathered her textbooks, dropped them at the campus book room and, without telling a soul, vanished from Birmingham High School.”

In her shoes, after seven failed attempts, I probably would have done the same thing. Plenty of her classmates are following in her footsteps, right out of the school house door. I’m willing to bet thatlikeke me, at least some of them excelled at other subjects. In almost any subject that wasn’t math or science I did fine. I excelled in English and History. My teachers praised my writing abilities. Now, there were probably some special circumstances in my case, given that I waunknowinglyly struggling with untreated ADD when I was in high shool, but the truth is that I was only ever a few points away from being in the same spot as Gabriela. So, should I not have graduated?

Then there was college. At my university, the math department had a reputation when it came to algebra. People failed all the time. I did. Actually, I dropped before I failed. People transferred to other universities for a semester in order to take and pass algebra elsewhere, and then returned. I did. I went back to the local college in my hometown, where I took and failed algebra. I went back to my university and worked around it, taking and passing statistics and logic (also known as “math for poets” at my university). All the while, I was struggling with undiagnosed, untreated ADD, and as a result could only handle a partial class load after I hit the wall during my sophomore year.

At the time, there was a loophole when it came to statistics. If I took it and passed it, I would be exempt from taking algebra even though it was a prerequisite for statistics. So, I did. It wasn’t until a semester before I was scheduled to graduate (after taking six years to finish, by going part-time) that I found out different. My graduation advisor made a funny face when she looked over my records, and then informed that the loophole had closed, just before I took statistics. So, I wasn’t exempt. I would have to take algebra and pass it if I wanted to graduate.

I suppose I could have dropped off my books and walked awa. But then, she made another face. There was another loophole. The semester after I was scheduled to graduate, the algebra requirement was going to be dropped from my degree. I thought moment, and told her to move my graduation deadline back a semester. I would take one more elective and wait for the algebra requirement to be dropped. That’s what I did, and I graduated from college withouthavingg to take algebra. Should I not have graduated from college either?

Or is it worth considering that perhaps not everyone can “do” algebra, trig or calculus? Is it worth considering that perhaps there are even some smart people who aren’t great at math and/or science? Yes, yes, I’ve heard all about the U.S. falling behind in those areas, and I understand the need to encourage excellence in those areas. And I totally get this equation.

The math is simple:

No algebra=No calculus=No science=No technology=We’re totally *&$#FRTDG!!!!!

But are we to force every peg, round or square, into that hole at the expense of forcing students, who may be gifted in other equally important subjects, to dropout after a long series of demoralizing failures? Because that’s what happening, and the message that students are getting because they aren’t able to pass algebra is that they’re ignorant. Or worse yet, that they’re stupid. And since I never really got algebra, I guess that makes me one of them. Whatever my other gifts were, they shouldn’t have counted for as much as whether or not I could do algebra.

And,yes, I said “couldn’t” do it. In that sense, I have a lot in common with another blogger.

Sorry, I’m with Richard. Yes, being math-impaired is a learning disability, and I have it. I recognized this years ago, and through all these years I have managed to work around it quite nicely, especially with the help of calculators and Microsoft Excel. I can even calculate percentages with Excel (something I really did have to do in my professional life), although not with a calculator. I’m not sure why that’s true, but it is. Before Excel, I had to ask people to do percentages for me.

…I do consider it a disability, but if you’ve got to have a disability it’s a relatively benign one to have. I think that was Cohen’s point. He’s not opposed to math education. Nor am I; I am humbled and grateful that so many people can do math and are scientists and doctors and accountants and whatever. Civilization isn’t possible without them. But if you don’t have legs you’re not going to be a dancer. If you don’t have eyes you’re not going to be a graphic artist. I was never going to be a scientist. That’s how life is. I accept it.

Another favorite blogger of mine got by about as well as I did.

I was never going to be a scientist either. I had a hard time explaining that to my Dad when I went to college. He thought I should major in engineering. I had to explain that I wasn’t very good at math or science, and that I didn’t like either subject. He said “but that’s where the money is.” I explained that I would be a crappy engineer, and a miserable one, and that there wasn’t gonna be much money or happiness in that.

But does the reality that I wasn’t going to be a scientist mean that I shouldn’t be anything that would require a high school diploma or a college degree? Does that mean GabrieGabrieladn’t either? Some people think so.

If I had my way, calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology would all be requirements for a high school diploma. Would that lead to fewer people with high-school diplomas? Yes. But that’s life.

And by that standard, people like me — who struggle with math and science but are gifted in other areas — are, and should be, tossed aside. And along with us the gifts, talents and knowlegde we do possess. After all, they have little to no value if we can’t do algebra. Discarding people like Gabriela, Jeanne, and myself may well help this country advance in the the fields of math and science, and thus technology. I wonder, though, what it will have lost in the process. When you try to force all pegs — whether square or round — into one hole, you’re bound to break a few of them.

Now, if you’ll exuse me, I have to return my diplomas and then find a floor to sweep or a shelf to stock.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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10 Responses to All the Pegs in the Same Hole

  1. Terrance says:

    I should add that, unlice Cohen (according to his colum) I can do percentages. However, usually can’t do them in my head. I need a piece of paper, or I’ll do them in Excel, on on a calculator.

    I can also figure out tips. But I don’t figure out 15%. I figure 10% of the total and then add have of that

    Is that algebra?

  2. Leonidas says:

    Right on.  I had much the same experience.  From my perspective, I don’t see why number-crunching should be so important.  We can hire Chinese and Indians to do that.  What matters is soul, passion, faith.  That is why Bush in the end has been so much more successful than Clinton.  Clinton worshipped numbers — Bush is driven by faith.  Faith trumps numbers.  Every time.

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  4. Silph says:

    It’s fascinating, reading stuff like this. As someone hoping to become a math teacher, I lament the fact at how MISERABLY math is taught in some places. Math is just as exhillerating and PERSONAL as music and the arts are — and the people who are good at math, just seem to understand this without trying! But for some reason, the "soul and passion" of math is just not *acknowledged* enough. I was lucky enough to have teachers that made me realize the artistic thought and joy in math.. and really, once you are able to see math as something personally engaging, it all becomes easier. Without it, it unforutnately becomes this lifeless, dry, irrelevant bunch of symbols: and that’s a pity, because it don’t have to be that way.

  5. Terrance,I figure out tips the same way.  I also own a really nice calculator.  That saves my butt on a daily basis.On the other hand, I can navigate my way through problem-solving intuitively and come to the right answer.  I’ll bet  you can too.  That’s why I don’t get algebra — it’s too counter-intuitive the way it’s taught.I made it through algebra and geometry with a C.  I am visually handicapped when it comes to understanding how shapes fit together and almost didn’t get through geometry at all.I didn’t finish college – melted down in my sophomore year when I failed COBOL — a requirement for a psych degree.  It was the very first class I ever failed in my entire life.  I still cringe.

  6. Steven says:

    Terrance,That’s a very common way to calculate tips, and in a way it is algebra.  I used to do it that way, but now I have a very handy tip calculator on my cell phone.Most people use simple algebra frequently without even knowing that’s what they are doing.  It’s just a way to find the answer.It’s interesting how different peoples experiences are. I excelled at math and science in school and did only average at English and history.  Writing always seemed like way too much work, however, the only class I ever really failed was gym.

  7. Terrance says:

    I forgot to add that in high school it got to the point where I’d have panic attacks during my math classes.

    Come to think of it, I had at least one in college too, when I was taking an exam in logic.

  8. The Teacher says:

    How do you add 78 and 34? 
    a.  Take a piece of paper, line up the numbers, add 8 and 4, write down 2, carry the "one" (which is a 10), then add 7, 3 and 1 (which are 70, 30 and 10), write down 11.
    b. Use a calculator.
    c. In your head, add 70 to 30, then add 8 to 100, then add 4 to 108.
    d.  Make the 78 an 80 and the 34 a 32.  Add 80 and 32 by counting "8, 9, 10, 11"  11 10s is 110 plus 2 is 112.
    All of my students (I polled them.) believe that "a" is the only answer.  "Carry the one" is one of the biggest lies.  The best day was when a kid told me that 19 times 7 was "just 140 minus 7 — and that’s easy!"

    Yes, Terrance, calculating a 15% tip by first computing 10% by simply moving the decimal point left and then adding half of that to your answer is algebra! And it really isn’t that hard…
    I love the comment by “The Teacher” about the multiple ways to add 34 and 78. Whatever strategy you use to solve mathematical problems is fine, but you should be able to articulate how you solved the problem to someone else in order to illustrate your understanding.
     I actually don’t think that I agree with the requirement that ONE YEAR of algebra be required for high school graduation.  And this is from someone who has multiple college degrees in mathematics and has never taught anything less complicated than college Calculus.

  10. Terrance says:

    So, I’ve actually been doing algebra all along? Well, there may be something to this math stuff after all. Maybe I was just hit by a double whammy. Maybe it was a combination of untreated ADD and just the way math was taught at the time. But I think there might be something to the notion that some people are just learning disabled when it comes to math, and I think I have at least a touch of that.

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