“Math just isn’t your thing.”
“It’s okay. You’re ‘artsy’.”
“You’re really good at other things, like writing and foreign language.”
The voices of adults and classmates from my youth ricochet thorough my memory quite prominently when the subject of Mathematics is brought up. I was not a stellar Math student, to say the least. As a matter of fact, until very recently, my association with the subject was terrorizing. Accompaniment to the voices are visions of hopeless tutoring sessions, meaningless rhombi and marathon late-night negotiations with my parental unit. “If you don’t make me take the SAT, I’ll take the ACT instead; the Math is easier.” “If you don’t make me take Pre-Calc, I’ll take an extra Humanities class.” “Music schools don’t care about my grades in Math anyway.” My signature phrase became, “I don’t need to know what x equals to buy groceries. (They still talk about that snarky line to this day.)
In our society, when we realize during our youth that we aren’t-so-good at something, those who love us try to focus on our strengths. Through this comes searching and discovery; “I’m not great at horseback riding, let’s try basket weaving” kind of thing. And on this journey we tend to stumble upon the dangerous territory of pigeonholing. We place our children into two categories: Arts/Humanities or Math/Science. And the two may never intermix! So, what option do the children have? Focus on your strengths and give up on your weaknesses. They maintain their roles into adulthood and never look back. I am living proof of this; not only do I deal with Mathematics as little as possible, I actually have tried to shut it out of my life completely.
Here we are, present day. I have plans to begin a graduate degree in the Fall, an endeavor I’ve researched several times over the last six years. What has been holding me back, you ask? Sure, there is time management and logistics, cost is always a concern. Friends of mine have told me I should coin the phrase, “There is never the right time or the right amount of money to do anything; if you want to do something, do it now.” So, why haven’t I taken my own advice? Well, I’ll give you a hint; it starts with a G and ends with an R-E. And there is a lot of Math on it. Oh no! Now what? Time to put on your big girl pants, Clores.
So, I got a guy. An intellectual, patient, all-knowing Math guy. I was fortunate to have him agree to coach me. I certainly was nervous. Though I trusted his knowledge and guidance implicitly, fear overwhelmed me right from the start. All I could think of was my tumultuous relationship with Math from my youth. On the drive to our first tutoring session, I actually felt nauseous. My teacher and I can laugh about this now, which is a huge relief. And, most importantly, I’ve finally come to the realization that my qualms with Math actually have nothing to do with Math.
Since my reintroduction to Mathematics, I’ve asked myself this question a few times: why do we allow ourselves to be tortured this way regarding aspects of our youth that made us uncomfortable? It doesn’t seem fair that at 16 years old, we close ourselves off to an entire aspect of thinking or learning for the rest of our lives. Sure, go ahead, blame it on a former teacher, a phase you were going through or an executive desicion your parents should or shouldn’t have made. Everyone has used one of these excuses to justify why an aspect of our youth didn’t work out the way we’d hoped. Well, as many of my students have heard me say, I don’t believe in excuses. Excuses are a projection of a choice; a choice that perhaps now we feel we shouldn’t have settled on. The reality of it is, we did and the word ‘did’ implies that it’s over and done with; can we do anything about it?
As a musician and educator, the people I meet often share with me their personal past with music. Though everyone’s experience is not exactly the same, we’re all much more similar than we may realize and it applies to more than music or math tutoring. Generally, there was some kind of experience and, regardless of how long it lasted or how heavily invested we were, it ended; maybe it was for the better, maybe not. Now we’re older, wiser, more experienced and confident. We may reflect on this experience and wish we handled it differently but, again, can we do anything about it now? The answer is always ‘no’ in regard to our past and it’s important to understand that, at that exact moment in our life, it was the way things needed to be.
My message to my students and friends is this: open your mind to the idea that people don’t and shouldn’t fit into a mold. Everyone has layers and is complicted; that is what makes all of us fascinating. Try to avoid creating labels for others and more specifically, yourself: “jock”, “artsy”, “fashionista”, “hipster”. People are just that: people. Yes, they have their interests, strenghths and certain style, but that doesn’t define who they are. It certainly doesn’t mean they can’t explore endeavors they never have or have been afraid to. We build our own limits; we also have the ability to dismantle them. The subject of Mathematics rendered arguments, tears and anxiety in my youth. As an adult, I just completed two months of weekly tutoring and took an exam for 4 1/2 hours after not having been in traditional schooling for ten years. First thing I thought when it was over? “I can’t believe I got through that.” Why couldn’t I believe it? Oh, right, because I’m a musician and musicians aren’t good with math or any other sort of academia…
Oh, but they can be! Just like football players can do pottery, chemists can be salsa dancers and a baroque guitarist can have a career as a firefighter. I’ve even met one!
“A mind is like a parachute; it doesn’t work if it is not open.”
– Frank Zappa