A NUMBERS GAME!
For me, there’s something about arithmetic that has just never added up.
I’m fine with words and letters but when it comes to numbers and maths, for me, it’s all just a big fat zero.
It all started at infant school. I well remember learning to add up using long and short wooden coloured rods. A little white cube represented the number one, a long dark blue one was the number nine. Quite useful but perhaps a bit unwieldy when it comes to working out the cost of your grocery shopping. I guess that’s why they invented calculators.
Anyway, I did my best with my sums but it was always a struggle. One day, at the age of six, we had a test with the results due to be shown at Parent’s Evening. “You’ve got one wrong,” my kindly teacher Mrs F said, “Would you like to do the whole test again so that your parents can see how well you’ve done?”
I shifted from one foot to the other. I was sure my doting parents wouldn’t have minded me getting one little sum wrong but, ever eager to please, I agreed to retake the whole test. I needn’t have bothered – this time I got three wrong instead! Surely proof that when it comes to maths, more is not necessarily better!
There was no lack of opportunity for mathematical entanglement when it came to Junior School. In fact, here was where my mathematical fortunes took a definite turn for the worse. I dreaded ever being called upon to solve any problem in class as I when it came to maths, for me, it was really was just problems, problems, problems.
In my first year, Mrs L often vocally showed her despair of me with my “poor” handwriting and my lack of ability in the numbers department. One day, after a test, she called out my name. “Julie Rosenfield!” I could feel my ears wiggle as I braced myself for the inevitable put down. “You’ve got them all right.” I don’t know who was more shocked – her or me.
I don’t have too many bad memories in the second year as I ploughed my way through long division and fractious fractions wiht our jolly teacher, Mr C, and I must have made reasonable progress along the way.
However, on the first day of the third year, I got the shock of my life. The school, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that because that because class sizes in my year had grown too large – to 44 pupils per class in some cases – they would subtract a percentage of them and add them to a class in the year above.
I couldn’t believe it. I had just skipped a year and left all of my classmates behind. My parents and I were never consulted on this, and as a result, I spent a wretched year struggling through maths, particularly hard when I’d effectively missed a whole year of tuition. The teacher Mrs M was kind enough but again with such large classes there wasn’t the time to give me the individual attention I needed to catch up. I used to lie awake at night, desperate not to sleep. Sleep would have only meant having to wake up again the next day and face another battle with numbers which I had no hope of winning.
At the age of ten, I was invited to take the entrance test for senior school a year early, but this time my parents stepped in and refused to allow me to take it. Just as well, as I would never have passed the maths section of the entrance exam.
But this now meant spending a second year in the fourth year, at the mercies of Mr X, my maths teacher. When it came to controlling the class, Mr X had two weapons of class destruction: the slipper – which caused many a recipient to rub their backsides ruefully – and biting sarcasm. Although, thankfully, I never received any of the former, I still bear the scars of the latter.
Our endless companion through the mathematical jungle in those days was a huge yellow book entitled School Mathematics Project or SMP for short. I dreaded that book, not so much for the incomprehensible sums it contained, but because of the sheer weight of it, dragging down my brief case, as I struggled to walk back home from the bus stop with it.
One day, in class, I had a split-second decision to make. I already had a ton of books weighing me down for homework from other subjects and now Mr X had assigned some homework from the dreaded SMP book.
In a rare moment of rebellion, I decided to leave my SMP behind and make my way home with the rest of the books. I paid dearly for this insurrection the next day.
“Julie Rosenfield is soooo clever she doesn’t need to do her homework,” announced Mr X, sarcastically to the whole class the next day as I reluctantly revealed my insubordination. I blushed in shame, vowing never to repeat the same mistake again.
Maths at senior school was less traumatic but just plain difficult. Our maths teacher in the first few years, Miss R, was a brilliant mathematician but just couldn’t seem to get the message across to those of us who were mathematically challenged. To her credit, she did stay behind and give me extra maths in lunch hours.
“2 x + 2y?” ran the question in the maths text book.
“Er, 4y?” I guessed bravely
“4y?” she exclaimed in horror. “But you wouldn’t say 2 apples plus 2 oranges = 4 oranges, would you?”
Possibly not, but as hard as I tried, when it came to x and y’s, I was always at sixes and sevens!
I had one major revelatory moment in a maths class in the fifth year, when my teacher was a kind and patient lady, Mrs B.
We had spent the morning battling through some particularly fierce quadratic equations for which I could find no solution or reason. At one moment, Mrs B proudly demonstrated the latest solution to one of these fiendish teasers to the collective sigh of relief from the class. She then turned round and said, “And do you know, there are some people who don’t even like maths?” It was a shock to me to realise that some of my fellow students shared her surprise and to find that people actually did like maths, the subject that I’d struggled with and agonised over for years.
Having barely scraped my maths qualification at 16, I resolved never to touch the subject again, and promised myself that the only pi I would ever go near in future would be the kind containing apple and accompanied by ice cream.
But a couple of chance encounters recently with present-day maths teachers have set me thinking. The first one said that maths is no longer the same battleground it once was. Modern teaching methods have apparently turned the whole subject round and made it much more exciting and relevant to modern day life. For instance, nowadays, pupils are shown videos of football games and asked to calculate the curve of the ball into the net thus sparking their interest and making the subject come alive.
And a second teacher, a committed, patient and kind individual, has even suggested I have a go at doing an Open University course to improve my maths. So this week, I had a go at one of their online quizzes and was thrilled to get 85% in Level 1 and 68% in Level 2 which was a great source of surprise and encouragement.
So I am seriously thinking of giving maths another go particularly, as I do still struggle in everyday life with numbers. Trying to figure out, for instance, in the supermarket which products are better value or trying to work out how to convert a journey of kilometres into miles is still really problematic for me.
I guess if I do start to study maths again, I know there will be slip-ups along the way but there definitely won’t be slippers. I guess it’s something I just need to figure out for myself and see if further mathematical study might perhaps be a welcome addition to my life after all!
For more information about studying maths with the Open University, please visit http://mathschoices.open.ac.uk/