I’m bad at math.

Unequivocally, wholly and completely terrible at math.

I have to use my fingers to figure out what my total at a restaurant should be after I add in the tip. I had four years of algebra in high school because I had to take Algebra 2 three times.

It’s one reason I’ve put so much effort in being successful as a man of words. History, writing, social sciences — these things have long come very naturally to me. I’ve been unfortunate in many things, but I’ve been blessed to have had a way with words that has enabled me to make a living not by the sweat of my brow alone.

Math is mysterious, and the mystery is compounded by my perception that it’s a mystery that doesn’t really require a solution. Like hearing a thud somewhere in the house while watching TV, it raises questions but I’m not inclined to put in the effort to find the cause. Very seldom in my professional life have I had to solve for x. Only once have I even had to use height-times-width to figure out an area, and then division to determine that it was going to be cost-prohibitive to build a retaining wall near my front walk.

When I was very young — kindergarten age or so — I was given the gift of a small calculator with my name on it. It had a very small LCD screen and a small keypad of tiny rubber buttons. The device was no larger than a credit card, but it could add, subtract, multiply and divide.

Later, by first grade, I had a teacher who had an unorthodox way of teaching math. She taped a “number line” across the top of each of our desks and instructed us to add and subtract by counting the distance from one number to another. For eight minus five, for instance, count how many numbers you hit between eight and five. Seven (“one”), six (“two”), five (“three”). The solution is three. Easy enough. But the number line only went up to about 16 or so, which made it virtually impossible for me to factor any figures larger than that. And by second grade, they had us stacking the figures and adding them out, borrowing from the tens column to subtract, etc., and I was completely lost. Then by third and fourth grade, I began trying to memorize multiplication tables, which seemed a very silly endeavor since I owned a calculator the size of a credit card that could multiply damn near anything.

(The necessity of multiplication was suspect, anyway: it would be clearer and simpler to just list out the numbers and add them. Why are we doing 6×3? Just do 6+6+6 and quit trying to complicate things.)

On top of it, I had my grandmother as tutor. She was a sweet, Christian lady who meant well, but her hobby was “cyphering.” Cyphering, as my grandmother did it, involved sitting in an armchair with a ballpoint pen and adding and subtracting a long list of figures on the back of an opened envelope that came in the mail (it would’ve been wasteful to just throw that away, I guess). What she was figuring and from where those numbers were derived, I have no idea. She could’ve been figuring how global grain prices were going to impact her grocery bill, less her senior discount for all I know. But her incessant cyphering meant that she knew addition and subtraction the way most people know their multiplication tables. So at a glance she could solve a math problem, and often did, instructing me to write the solution and move on to the next.

By the time letters were introduced to the math problems, I was hopelessly lost. I had no idea what I was doing. Order of operation seemed stupid to someone who read as much as I did. You do things left to write. Why would I start doing a math problem in the middle? Exponents were even more bourgeois than multiplication tables. Just write it out and quit trying to be so fancy.

In high school, I had become a hopeless case. I passed Algebra 2 after my third try with a 70 — the lowest score I could get and still pass. I was obviously the recipient of a teacher’s sympathy. I’d already been accepted to a good college pending the passing of the math class (and completion of my diploma), and the teacher was kind enough to just let me go.

My one and only college algebra course was the professor’s last. He was a tall, thin, old man who would be retiring at the end of the semester. Since his class was for freshmen — 18-year-olds who hadn’t quite made the transition from high school — the class was often boisterous when he entered. His expectation that everyone should be silent when the instructor entered the room (and rise, maybe? call him “your honor?”) was never met. So, rather than try to get the class to simmer down, he’d leave. Once or twice, he didn’t even enter the room; just stuck his head in and went back to his department.

Being without a scholarship and well aware of what college costs, one day I followed him back to his department. “Hey!” I shouted as he walked along, ignoring me. “Hey, professor! Hey!” In the lobby of the mathematics department, as my stalking created a scene, he finally turned to address me. “I’m paying you to teach me algebra!” I shouted. “I paid for gas to drive here, I paid the MARTA fare to get here, and I paid my tuition and student fees. I paid your salary. I paid you to teach me. If we need to go back to your office for instruction, fine. I’ll be quiet. But I’m not going to learn this on my own.”

“Son,” he said, “I’ve done this too long to care if you learn anything here or not.” And he walked through a door near the reception desk and locked it behind him. I looked at the work-study student behind the desk, told her the professor was a dick, and left.

Now, for the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to teach myself math.

I’m trying to get back into college. I need to take a test called the “Compass.” It’s made by the same people who did the ACT and it’s designed to determine which classes I should be placed in. I have enough English classes that carry over from my first foray into college (more than 10 years ago) to exempt me from taking that portion of the test, but I must take the math portion, and I must make at least a 20 out of 100.

That sounds easy enough. But the test ranges from pre-algebra to trigonometry. And the computer-based exam shuts off once it’s clear the test taker has no idea what he or she is doing. So, since it’s obvious that I’m not going to get any trigonometry or calculus questions right, my strategy is to do well enough on the introductory questions to get the necessary minimum that would allow me to even be considered for admission.

So, for two weeks, I’ve been sitting in front of my laptop, watching videos on Georgia Perimeter College’s Web site and taking notes, trying to solve my way into college. I took a practice exam last night, and missed six out of 30 questions. That’s good enough for an 80 (don’t pat me on the head — there are calculators on the Internet for this kind of crap), but only on those earliest questions. I can’t say that I feel totally prepared, but I’m ready as I’m going to be. And this morning, I’ll find out if I’m ready enough. So any prayers, happy thoughts, good vibrations, etc. that you want to send my way are very much welcomed.

I feel I understand math better than I ever have, however. I’ve focused, realizing and appreciating that math does indeed have a use for me.

Even if it is just being the hurdle I must jump to be considered fit for college once again.

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