“I Wish I Could Have…” On Mathematics and Motivation

“I wish I could have…”

I found this thought drifting through my head today, in regards to missing out on my education because I had inadequate support/understanding/treatment for my mental illness. I was talking to the sub about mathematics, until he glazed over because I had traveled out of his interest/knowledge area about it. I wasn’t upset, but I just found myself feeling frustrated that I have these mathematics concepts that float through my head, but I don’t know how to put them down on paper. I don’t have the education to back up the insight and give it form and structure.

My Dad was a math professor. A great one. And I don’t say that because he was my Dad, but because he really was. He almost didn’t graduate high school because he couldn’t pass his required math class, but the teacher took pity on him and gave him a D- so he could still graduate. After being in the military, he went to college, and chose psychology as his major, specifically because it required the least amount of math. All he had to do was pass one Statistics course, and he figured he could pull off that one class. He had to study relentlessly, but he passed it with flying colors.

Months after the class was over and done, he happened to overhear a conversation between professors about how there was a position opening up for a TA for a Statistics class. He needed the money and figured, since he passed the class, he might as well give it a go. And he discovered something amazing: having spent so much of his life feeling stupid and frustrated by math, it made him particularly adept at helping the students who were the most lost and confused. He loved teaching, passing on understanding that had been so hard for him to acquire in the first place.

He changed his major, and the rest, they say, is history. He ended up with a double Masters’ degree, and was a professor at a prominent college for over 25 years. But more importantly, he was able to connect with students who had, like him, spent their lives fleeing from math like it was an on-fire zombie hoard. At his funeral I was surrounded by students, some from his current classes, some who had been taught be him decades before, but all telling me amazing stories about the worlds of opportunity he opened up for them.

“I wish I could have…”

I’d known the story of my Dad’s journey from “math moron to mathemagician” (his words, not mine), since I was a child. I grew up sitting in on his classes, peeking at his textbooks, and generally perceiving the world in a mathemathic way. I’ve often (vainly) thought that I could have really been something, had I just been able to get an education through and in spite of my mental illness. Like tonight.

I stopped the thought as it started, and for the first time, saw the obvious truth in front of me. Other than lacking the money and emotional capability to attend college, what is different between him and I? Why do I think of this as something that already happened, that is over and done, rather than being something I can actually still do? Why is it past tense? What is actually stopping me from refreshing and relearning everything from remedial math on up, using those textbooks for real, and giving myself an education, other than myself?

“I wish I could have…” is no longer in my vocabulary. From now on, it will be “I wonder how I can…”

An Anonymous Outsider

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8 thoughts on ““I Wish I Could Have…” On Mathematics and Motivation

  1. Pingback: Milestones: Looking for something radically honest to read? Voila! | ananonymousoutsider

  2. Pingback: Teaching is Eternal | ananonymousoutsider

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