It’s a feeling of panic. Your heart races, your palms moisten, your eyes race down the page. Everything, all of it, looks like hieroglyphics. Frantically you search for something — anything — that you recognize. Something you can start with. You frantically flip to the second page, then the third, your eyes racing down the page, heart pounding in your ears. By the time you scan helplessly to bottom of the last page, there is nothing you know how to do. Suddenly hits you — you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.
Surely others are panicking too? But a quick glance around you reveals that even those dullards are weaving their way crisply through the opening problems. Suddenly you feel completely, utterly stupid, and totally alone. Your eyes dart to the door. You want to leap up and run — but you can’t. They’d stare. They’d talk. Are they staring right now? Can they tell that you have no idea? Your heart races faster . . . You’ve got to find something you know how to do . . . You can’t pass in a blank test . . . Control your fear . . . But it’s too late . . .
Suddenly you’re wide awake. You’re sitting straight up in bed, heart racing, forehead dripping sweat. It’s 3 am and you’re a fully grown adult and you’ve just had a nightmare that has, strangely enough, become more frequent since you left school. As you try to catch your breath, two words come to your lips in a whisper.
“Math class . . .”
I’m 34 years old and haven’t opened a math book since before “Google” was a verb and I still get nightmares about being back in math class.
Normally my nightmares are topical. The back-to-school nightmare, for instance. I bet that every mid-August thousands of teachers all over the country are shooting bolt upright at 1 am, mumbling, “You can’t tell me they’re all former convicts . . .” In this nightmare I seem to have always misplaced important items that I need for the first day, such as my classroom, or my pants. I arrive to find everything in shambles: chairs sailing through windows, waste baskets on fire in the middle distance, a gang of preternaturally violent and remarkably well-armed young men who have a look that says this isn’t their first crack at the 11th grade. It’s basically George Bush’s first two weeks as president in this SNL skit:
Last week I had a wedding nightmare (I’m getting married this year). In this one, my fiancee and I arrived at our wedding site only to find it was a vast, stadium-like venue seated with hundreds of other couples. Then I discovered we are all to be married en masse by loudspeaker. Naturally, I become furious, thinking I’d booked this place just for us. When I tried to confront the manager, no words come out. Mid-stammer, I woke up.
Then there’s the nightmare in which I’m falling. Not falling from anything, or toward anything, just falling. I think everyone’s probably had this one.
Sometimes when I was kayaking I would have nightmares about drowning. They were always the same: I would be kayaking and then I would get pushed into a sieve and forced slowly under the water until things got black. I once had the pleasant experience of watching this exact scenario broadcast on a giant screen at the Banff Film Festival at the University of Vermont in a room with 400 people. As everyone was watching, riveted, I was screaming inside, “Do something!” I shut my eyes. I couldn’t watch a man drown.
But he doesn’t drown, of course. They wouldn’t have shown that. Still, it’s my exact nightmare. Nowadays I could probably sue the university for not prefacing this film with a trigger warning to protect my delicate sensibilities: “May contain content unsuitable for ex-kayakers.”
Yet none of these compares to the sheer horror of being back in math class. It’s always the same. I’m in college and — god knows why — I’ve signed up for a course with a title like “Complex Analysis of Sheer Algebraic Factorial Interventions with a Side of Quandary.” I sidle in on the first day only to be greeted by a roomful of humorless, bespectacled math prodigies named Cameron, all of whom wear a predatory look that seems to preemptively say, “What, you don’t get the theorem?” The class is taught by a gruff, remote professor who speaks entirely in symbols and fills several blackboards with what looks like Mandarin, all of which inspires comprehending, even bored nods from everyone around me. Because class doesn’t make sense, I stop attending. With every skipped class, it gets harder and harder to return, but I know that soon I must face the music. On the last day, I creep back in to take the final exam. After several minutes of excruciating panic, I usually wake up.
Here’s what’s odd: I was good at math. Not about to steal anyone’s spot at MIT, but good enough to manage A’s in high school. In fact, I got A’s all the way up through the second semester of senior year, when I opted to take AP Calculus pass-fail and started tanking like the ’97 Spurs trying to land Tim Duncan. I believe I finished with a 60.00001%.
But before that? I did fine. I enjoyed math. It was certainly more interesting than something dry, like science, where all you were doing was memorizing stuff. Sure, you weren’t entering class already soaked in math like you were with English, and you had to pay attention or you could lose the thread, but that was all part of the fun. It was like a puzzle. There was a real satisfaction in figuring it out. After college I even tutored high school kids on SAT math and in Geometry and Algebra II. Again, it was fun. In all my years of school, I don’t recall ever once having a panic attack while taking a math test.
And that brings up something else that’s strange about my nightmare: I never took math in college. As I mentioned, I “eased out” of high school math as a senior and then swam cannily through the cracks in the Middlebury College curriculum, never once taking math. This allowed me to concentrate on our courses, like the ones that didn’t require daily homework.
So I have no idea why I have this college math nightmare. But the few people I’ve shared this with have all told me that they too have a nightmare about being back in math class. I believe it is common. What is it about math that terrifies us and haunts our nightmares, 15 years later?
For one thing, math is foreign. At least in all the other subjects the things you’re discussing — characters in novels, places on a map, types of sediment in the soil — are all things you’re sort of familiar with. You never lived during the Great Depression, of course, or met anyone like Macbeth — but you’ve run out of money before, and you’ve met power-hungry jerks before. The test might be hard, but you can play ball here. As we say in education, you have prior knowledge.
In math, you have no prior knowledge. Unless you were raised on the knee of a math professor who whispered syllogisms to you before bed, your prior knowledge about factoring imaginary numbers is probably less than or equal to zero.
And math is all about rules and logic — two things that teenagers are spectacularly bad at. Get lost on a history test, and you can at least eke out some semblance of dignity. I once drew on blank on the European History AP exam and ended up writing a whole essay with the French fashion industry as my featured example. It was horrible — but at least I filled up the page with some flowery bullshit. You can work yourself into a righteous fury that almost makes it feel like you know what you’re talking about. Somehow that feels a lot better than the utter humiliation of leaving a whole math problem blank. No class has more of those, “I just have no idea what the hell is going on” moments than math. Lose your place in science class and you can play your way back in later. It’s just the rock cycle, for god’s sake. You’ve been throwing rocks at your little brother for years. But whiff on the multiplicative inverse of an isosceles triangle you’ll be thrashing around for the next forty minutes, until you have the temerity to raise your hand and everyone else looks at you like, “Boy, he has a defective brain.” Math often feels like a judgment of your intelligence level. No class offers such a stark rebuke: “That is the wrong answer, Mr. Bird!”
Whatever it is, math has a hold over our collective unconscious. Some of us love it, some of us hate it, and some of us thought we loved it, but are apparently latently terrified of 15 years later. Still, no one doubts the importance of math in a good education.
Right at the top of my list of “people I wish I’d known better” is Boyce Greer, who was a badass New England kayaker and one of the most interesting men to ever pick up a paddle. Before his 2011 death on Idaho’s North Fork of the Payette River, Greer was a Harvard graduate with an MBA and a PhD, and one of the top executives at Fidelity Investments in charge of some $150 billion. The stories of him laconically running class V rivers on the weekend and then flying home on his chartered jet for a Monday board meeting are legendary. A great quote from his friend Tom Diegel highlights Greer’s unlikely business advice:
“Boyce was asked to go back to Harvard – where he had received his MBA – to give a presentation to current MBA students. One of them asked, ‘What would you suggest that we students do so that we can achieve the same success as you?’ His simple reply, that was undoubtedly a little disappointing to the ambitious students: ‘I’d take a lot of math. Life and business is all about solving problems, and if you can solve math problems, you can learn to solve any problems.’”
Sometimes I have this thought that I’ll go back and get certified to teach math, in addition to teaching English. I think it would an engaging left brain interlude to slide in a section of Algebra or Geometry between my usual Advanced Exposition and Contemporary Literature classes. And the more kids we can get to be unafraid of math, the fewer kids who will be having nightmares about it later on. And more kids who are unafraid of it, the more kids will be succeeding in our world. And that makes things better for everyone.
It’s just good math.