Recently, I was talking with a friend about math anxiety.
I’ve always been a bit of a math geek. I was one of those kids who always took the “advanced” or “accelerated” math classes in junior high, I took AP Calculus in twelfth grade. Hell, I was in the math honor society in high school. (Mu Alpha Theta. ’cause that kinda spells “MATH”. Weak sauce, right?) I was an engineering major in college (the first time) and in my old age I’ve decided to go back to school for a math degree.
And yet, I’ve also had some level of math anxiety, as far back as second grade. I can still remember when it started. I was sitting in the back seat of the station wagon with my second cousin (or was she a first cousin once removed; I always get those confused), while my mom drove us to the zoo. Nancy, my second cousin, is about a year and a half older than me (See that right there? That’s foreshadowing!) and my mom was trying to make conversation by asking what Nancy was studying in school. She said she really liked math, and they were studying fractions. I perked up; hey, I like math too! “What are fractions?”, I asked, oh so innocently.
Nancy said something about how it was numbers less than one, like ½ or ¾, and how two thirds was more than one half but less than three quarters. My mind spun like a top. I had a quarter in my pocket, and I could imagine having three of them, but how is that more than a half. Half of a what? As much as I enjoyed math, that was my first moment of math anxiety. I knew I liked the math I had already done, and was even good at it, but I was filled with dread about the math that was coming next.
And that pattern continued. I enjoyed math in fifth and sixth grades, but was intimidated by the prospect of algebra in junior high. And then I loved algebra, but was scared of trig. Trig wasn’t bad, but Calculus loomed on the horizon like a dark storm cloud. And here we are today. Calculus is a joy, but I’m about to delve into number theory and group theory and formal math proofs, and I can feel that level of anxiety creeping in. “What if I’m not smart enough?”