That Time You…Solved X


Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by math class.

It didn’t matter how clever the question in school. Math didn’t just elude me, it bored me to tears and exposed each and every one of my weaknesses.

“In Grandma’s basket, there are 24 muffins. She has two grandchildren. How many muffins can each grandchild have?” First of all, my grandmother didn’t bake. Second of all, if she did, I was only ever getting one muffin anyway. My curiosity wasn’t peaked. I was a moody, eight-year-old angster, longing for it to be journal time.

By seventh grade math, I wanted to die. Suddenly x and its true identification was all the talk, and I, the least concerned about x’s whereabouts, doodled endlessly in my notebook. Dogs, mushrooms, flowers, ivy – I drew as I pretended to work, longing for the bell to ring me my freedom.

But our teacher had given us a white flag if we chose to wave it.

“If you need help, raise your hand.”

There they were, the famous last words, the hallmark of teacher talk, and one I certainly ignored. Everyone around me appeared to know exactly what they were doing. I wasn’t about to volunteer myself as loser of the class. And so I continued to let math make a mockery of me until the following year when I was placed in what, back in the ‘90s, we so lovingly referred to as remedial. Basic or not, I prepared myself for more torture. It was eighth grade and I settled in for what I assumed would be the end of my days. My obituary would read, “Death by Algebra.” Nothing anyone said or did would make me give a damn about x, n, or God forbid, pi.

But to my surprise, that year’s math class began with a writing prompt: “What do you want to learn in my class?”

Skeptical, I pulled out my number 2 and wrote, “What I want to learn in your class is why math makes me stupid.”

The prompt was followed by a pop quiz to see what we remembered from seventh grade. Turns out, I remembered very little. (No surprise there!) My quiz was returned to me with a note at the top: “You’re only stupid if you want to be stupid. Ask for help when you need it.”

Well, crap. Now I had to give a damn because she gave a damn about me. I pushed through eighth grade math and received a big hug at graduation from dear Mrs. Colwart. “I knew you could do it,” she said.

I had discovered the true identity of x, but thirty years later, the rest of the equation remained unsolved.

It was a Sunday morning and the pressure building from within my sinuses was something fierce. My eyes were dry and itchy and waves of chills rippled down my back. Worse than feeling like I had the plague was that I was due to pick up my son from a slumber party in thirty minutes.

I moaned, just pathetically enough to warrant a reaction from my husband lying beside me.

When that achieved nothing, I groaned.

“Sorry you’re not feeling well,” he said.

It was hardly the reaction I was going for. So I was left with nothing but my old standby, my go-to for all things needed while refusing to directly ask for them: passive aggressiveness.

It began with a sigh – it always starts with a sigh – and then, “I guess I better get up and go get him.” Insert another sigh. “I just hope I can make it there without wrecking the car.”

With that, my husband turned to me and said, “Enough already. Just ask for what you want.”

When I did, he said, “Now was that such a big deal?”

It was a rhetorical question, but one that gnawed at me between doses of decongestants and pain relievers.

From the dawn of time we’ve been encouraged to ask. It’s basically biblical: “Ask and ye shall receive.” In music, we beg, “If you need me, call me, no matter where you are, no matter how far.” Teachers pace up and down the aisles between desks, scanning for raised hands. Signs for help are everywhere and yet we refuse them – especially me, barely able to lift my head, determined not to ask for help. It seems that yesterday’s math class is today’s adulting.

When x and n were the leading players of my problems, I didn’t ask for help because that would mean admitting I didn’t understand something that I assumed everyone else did. If no one else had their hand raised, raising mine would be a sign of weakness. Weak animals in the pack are often left for dead, and junior high isn’t that different. But what if the rest of my algebra class kept their hands down for the same reason I did–fear of being singled out? And, what’s more, from math class to today have we all just continued the silly stubbornness of yesterday, refusing to admit our ignorance, missing opportunities to advance to the next level, until our problems fester into something so complex that calculators are useless?

Is asking for help the new x?

If we divide our needs into the various categories of our lives, we see that opportunities to solve our problems are all around us, yet frequently missed. Professionally, we’re encouraged to network and reach out for another’s expertise. Yet, we hesitate because it’s embarrassing to put ourselves out there. We convince ourselves that our ego will be more bruised if we admit we don’t know what we’re doing. Emotionally and socially, we convince ourselves that hiding our anxiety is the answer to our problems because others won’t understand. And personally, among those to whom we are closest, we take on more than we can handle because we believe that the problem is ours and ours alone.

Maybe math class was right all along? We need only show our work to prove that we have it all wrong.

No one wants to be the stupid kid in class, but the only thing worse than being the stupid kid is being the stupid adult who pretends to know it all. We just end up looking more stupid. No one wants to help a know-it-all, but empathy’s cup runs over for those who show humility. Why? Because we’ve all been in over our heads. We’ve all fallen down the rabbit hole without a clear way out. Yet, when we fall, we often refuse to holler for the help we’re willing to give others.

Admitting we don’t know it all sends a message that might destroy our image – the same image we began to build when we stopped raising our hands in math class years ago. What we haven’t learned is that we don’t break ceilings by knowing it all, all of the time. Summits are reached by choosing one path, only to hit a dead end and then choosing another. Such is happiness with ourselves, peace of mind, and our relationships with others. Life is a series of trial and error. And just like in math class, the answers to our problems are found after several failed attempts and by raising our damn hands for help when we need it.

But there’s another reason we don’t ask for help – one that completes the equation the morning I so pathetically used passive aggression on my husband. Sometimes we don’t ask for help because we want our needs anticipated.

My husband had no clue our son needed to be picked up. Otherwise, he would have offered. This wasn’t the first time I had played the victim and left him guessing. It’s natural to want our problems solved for us. Sometimes they are, and in those instances, we should make a big deal of the generous people in our lives–not the need for their help.

I know enough to know that I was never math’s victim. I’m my own victim because while some equations are simple enough that I can figure them out on my own, others are more complicated and made worse when I deny my own humility. When we were kids, showing our work meant writing down enough information to let someone else reproduce what we did. If that someone could tell how we reached our answer without having to guess, we’d shown our work properly. Our work today may be different, but we can still show how we get our results honestly.

And if we show that step by step, we raised our hands, we sought advisement, and we used the resources available, the whole class may come to the same conclusion:

1 + a hand raised = success.



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