In fifth grade, four of my classmates and I tested out of elementary school math. Instead of one more year of long division, every day during recess we marched ourselves across the muddy field separating the elementary and middle school and entered a strange land of lockers, period bells, puberty, and pre-algebra.
One day, while sitting in the back of Mrs. Lambiotte’s classroom (the back of the room, I discovered, was the best place for witnessing the novel hormonal mayhem of a seventh grade classroom — and also for finding the kinds of students who didn’t mind talking to a 10-year-old), I chewed a little too hard on my red pen. A bitter taste erupted in my mouth; within moments, my jaw was covered in red ink. I fled to the bathroom.
This is a story that could’ve easily ended in tears and a lifelong loathing of math. Instead, after some quality time with the faucet, I skulked back to Mrs. Lambiotte’s class, where after a mild ribbing, my spectacle was forgotten as my classmates got back to business of being twelve and thirteen-year-olds — trading moony glances, tightly folded notes, spitballs, and the like.
I lucked out that day. But when I think about how scary school — and math in particular — has a potential to be, I think about the flash of terror that descended when I realized that I’d eaten open my pen, underscoring my presence as the classroom freak for once and for all in a burst of bright red ink across my face.
Everything that’s awkward about school is multiplied in the math classroom. That’s why I was particularly excited to explore the topic of “math anxiety” last week — through an interview with Dr. Rose Vukovic, professor of teaching and learning at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and in a visit to MoMath, the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan. Listen to the piece that resulted here.