Mount Algebra

December 9, 2012

Some years ago I was a (politically correct) “returning student,” (read old person) at the local community college.  I had taken five or six fun and easy courses, each rewarded with an “A” and a ratchet up in confidence.  Finally I felt ready to take Beginning Algebra.  Be impressed.  This move demonstrated a bravery equal to falling on a live grenade, considering the fact that I have a math phobia and had managed to graduate high school innocent of even rudimentary contact with said algebra.

That first day in class I realized that my peers, most of whom were less than one-half my age, had taken algebra before and this class was designed for them, not an algebraically uninitiated like myself.  The teacher blithely rattled on about formulas, equations, real numbers, natural numbers and irrational numbers.  Perversely, she wrote letters on the blackboard, instead of any of the aforementioned numbers and some were embraced by parentheses, which I had foolishly assumed were used only to cozy up groups of words.  The teacher’s language was worse than gibberish.  I felt as if I were about to become an irrational number, so at the ten minute break, I exited and didn’t return.

Next semester I took the same class with a different teacher.  Same result, except this time I controlled my panic attack until class was dismissed.  Devastated, I dropped the course.  But I had committed to working toward a degree, which would be the first in my family of origin, and follow my daughter’s college degree.  No one would award that coveted B.A. until I had passed College Algebra, four courses and a universe away.

Before the start of next semester I asked around: who was the best algebra teacher in the school?  I made an appointment to talk with that awesome lady.  I related my humiliating story and in anguish, asked, “Will I have to give up getting a college degree because I can’t do algebra?”  She reassured and encouraged me.

I prepared for that class like plotting an assault on Mount Everest.  I purchased the text book weeks beforehand and perused it until it sent me and my irritable bowel to the bathroom.  (Maybe I should have just left it in there for bathroom reading.)  When I talked to my next door neighbor, who was trained as a teacher and was home-schooling her children, she agreed to help me with homework if I got stuck.  I made the acquaintance of the math lab at the college, where they provided free tutoring any time during school hours.  The first day of class felt like a long workout on a balance beam but I stuck the landing — er, the first class and the second, and the first week.

This wonderful teacher had a precise grading system.  She awarded points for tests, of course, but also for each class attended, for each homework assignment handed in, and for each of a limited number of extra credit assignments.  Together, the points totaled 100, for a perfect A.  As I looked at the syllabus with that grading system, an outrageous idea struck.  Maybe I could get an A in this class, to match all the others:  a very seductive prospect.

As the weeks went by, this possibility was nurtured by modest success.  I did every homework assignment.  These weren’t graded for content or accuracy just checked briefly to see that the student actually did the work instead of entering a solution from the section at the back of the book.  I did check my work with the answers in the book, and the few times I had to consult my next door neighbor it was because the book’s answer was a misprint.  It was tough.  Each homework session produced a pounding headache, the result of new algebra synapses firing in my brain, I was convinced.  One day I just couldn’t take it; I decided to skip class.  No problem.  Next week I was back plodding away, still reasonably on track for my A.

Before the final exam, I checked my accumulated points and knew I had to get at least a 92 to get the coveted A.  The exam was excruciating.  I was the last person to leave the classroom.  We knew the teacher posted exam results on her classroom door, identified by the last four digits of the students’ social security numbers.  I held my breath as I located my grade.  91.  Mount Everest, ha!  I had failed to reach the summit; it was nauseating.  I felt like I was suffering from altitude sickness.  A sympathetic friend told me to ask the teacher to give me an extra point.  I considered it, but what stopped me was the though of that one day I had skipped class.  One day, one point.  I got what I deserved.  Two weeks later when my grade report for all my classes came in the mail, lo and behold, an A in Algebra, stacked sweetly in the column with the others.  To this day, I wonder:  did she give me a pity A, or when I totaled class points, did I make a mistake in my math?

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