The Day I Just Said “No” to Math In General.

11 Sep

Day 1 of the 90 in 90 blog challenge.

Did you know that a fear of math in young girls is actually like, a thing? Oh yeah. It is. There are books written about it. I was in a Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago, and I stumbled across a book that had a very cute, athletic looking girl on the front. She was wearing a college hoodie with her hands on her hips, giving a sassy know-it-all smile. The title was something along the lines of, “You’re a Cute, Average Girl who Likes to Wear Her Hair in a Sensible Pony Tail while Still Managing to Look Super Chic, and You Don’t Have to Be Afraid of Numbers Anymore!!!” I picked it up and looked inside. It looked like this:

So, Girls! You have 1/3 of the amount of X, which is then divided by:

67,098/ (43.090382- two quarts of malice).

So, if the number of miles it takes for a penguin to find his lifelong mate is the mean on the stem and leaf plot, how long would the right angle be right? It’s simple, ladies!

45 = 67 +87 – 3.14 > X89 Y=79.00~(**$$##7}

axis quadrilateral, equinox shoelace inches!


Y = shapes.

…I closed the book and moved on to reading a novel about Stockholm syndrome.

When I think back to my years in school, one day sticks out in my mind above all others. It was the day I just said “No” to math in general.

It was an average day. Probably a Wednesday or something. I was sitting in my desk in the front row of my 11th grade math class. Somewhere in my schooling, a teacher had told me that the kids who choose to sit in the front row automatically get better grades than those who hide in the back. As tempting as hiding under my desk in the back corner of the room like an ashamed dog with a bad haircut was, I decided that I could take all the help I could get… especially in… (Dun dun DUN!!!!) MATH.

Mr. Kolas. Just typing that name now is causing my heart to beat a little faster. He was a brittle old man, a complete sweetheart, honestly. He was the kind of man you would want to have as your grandfather. He was always smiling, always offering to come in early to help you with your homework if you needed. He did his very best to help me understand the concept of numbers, but unfortunately, Mr. Kolas’ best was not good enough. We kind of had this dysfunctional relationship… I depended on him for the answers to the endless mysteries of numerical values. He depended on the girls in class to wear the occasional low cut shirt. It was what it was.

So, I’m sitting there, all rejuvenated from my AP English class and I’m feeling pretty optimistic. Sure, I got a 52% on my last math test… But I tried looking on the bright side of things: I had gotten more than half of the questions right!!! Right!? And on top of that, I can at least figure out that 52% is 2% MORE THAN 50%… WHICH IS HALF! I GOT 2% MORE THAN HALF OF THE QUESTIONS RIGHT! AM I RIGHT!?!?!?!?!

I was so screwed.

Mr Kolas: Good afternoon, everyone! Please get out your notebooks and turn to a fresh page. We are going to learn an exciting new concept today!
Me: Great. A brand new concept. A clean slate, a fresh start. Here we go! I can do this! I can understand numbers if I just try hard enough!!!!

My friends Eddie and Emily sat next to me. I heard both of them let out an apprehensive sigh. I think they were the only two people in the class who didn’t fantasize about shooting me in the face every time I raised my hand and asked, “But….why?”

Mr. Kolas shuffled over to the whiteboard and started to write something. I was expecting his old, wrinkled hand to start forming a terrifying equation with X’s and Y’s and strange Greek letters and lines and symbols that looked like alien etchings. Instead, to my amazed pleasure, I could see he was writing letters! As in letters that make up words, that make up sentences, that make up concepts!

Me: YES! Letters! Words! I can do this!!!

Mr. Kolas backed away from the board and put the cap back onto the dry erase marker with a little snap! He was beaming at me. I knew he had faith in me! It was like he was saying, “It’s okay, Carolyn. I know you don’t understand anything in this class, but I have a feeling THIS will be the concept that even YOU can understand!” I smiled back at him, (Yes! I know I can do this!!!) and then looked at what he had written:


…I blinked a few times. What? That can’t be…

Emily: (muttered) …The f*ck?
Mr. Kolas: Today, class, we will be dealing with imaginary numbers!
Me: (raising my hand) …Wait.
(Collective groan from everyone sitting behind me.)
Me: No, but, seriously… just, hold on a second. Mr. Kolas? You’re telling me… that there are such things as… imaginary numbers?
Mr. Kolas: That’s right, Carolyn! Imaaaaginary numbers.
Me: You’re serious.
Mr. Kolas: Yes.
Me: You’re not joking about this.
Mr. Kolas: I am not joking about this. It’s a very serious and real concept.
Me: … Seriously?
Mr. Kolas: Yes! An imaaaginary number is a number whose square is less than or equal to zero!
Me: …Okay…
Eddie: But… It doesn’t exist?
Emily: It’s… imaginary.
Me: Like an imaginary friend.
Mr. Kolas: Ha ha! I like how you put that, Carolyn! Yes, like a numerical imaginary friend. Turn to page 108 in your books, and maybe that will help you all understand!
(We open our books to page 108. What I find is truly appalling.)

File:Complex conjugate picture.svg

An illustration of the complex plane. The imaginary numbers are on the vertical coordinate axis.

And I believe it was at this exact moment when I said, “No.”

I did not say “No” out loud. I didn’t even mutter it to Emily or Eddie. But inside my brain a tiny rebellion was happening. The tiny Carolyns who sit in cubicles in my head and make sure everything is running smoothly…They all simultaneously threw down their pens and clip boards and everything in their hands and said, “Oh HELL no!” and went to Chipoltle.

I looked at the chart in my book, and I looked back up to the board (“IMAGINARY NUMBERS”) and then to the cheerful, happy, adorable old man who so wanted me to understand. And suddenly? I did understand. Oh, I understood everything. I understood everything just fine…

I finally understood that math was an absolute joke.
I finally understood that this whole year, the whole time I had been sitting in the front row, raising my hand and asking “But… why?”, coming in early to get extra help… and the whole time, Mr. Kolas had greeted me with a smile and a kind, sweet encouraging demeanor… I finally understood that all of that was a lie.
Mr. Kolas did not want me to succeed in math.
Mr. Kolas did not get joy from the small, tiny flickers of understanding that so rarely lit up my dazed and confused eyes.
Mr. Kolas actually enjoyed watching me struggle.
He actually got joy from my mental pain.
Every question I got wrong was like an incorrect numerical beacon of encouragement for him.
He got pleasure from writing big red X’s on my tests.
While at home, sitting on his luxurious mahogany and dark green armchair, grading my tests and sipping on a scotch on the rocks, he madly circled the huge 52% in red ink and maniacally laughed (NNEEEYYYAAA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!) while a pitchfork lightning storm raged through the window outside.

And now? With this whole “Imaginary Number” bull sh*t? I knew all of it had been leading up to this… Every encouraging smile, every “Keep trying!” scribbled at the bottoms of my failed tests, every extra morning spent “tutoring” me… all of it was leading to THIS moment. For Mr. Kolas knew that for the girl who always asked “But… why?” during math class, imaginary numbers would be the “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” concept of the year. This would be the lesson that kept her up at night, the one that would make her stare at her ceiling surely questioning the origins of math… forever.

So that’s why he had given me such a “kind” and “excitedly encouraging” look when he introduced this “concept.”

Oh, he was sick… He was a sick and twisted old man. Suddenly, the man who I had respected and appreciated so much had turned from an adorable old mentor, to a satanic, sadistic, ancient wrinkly demon.

For a few moments, the rage would not subside. Everything Mr. Kolas was saying and writing on the board became blurry and hazy… I could barely handle what was happening to me, in my life. Was this real life? Was I being punked? Where was Ashton? Where was the film crew!? There was absolutely no reason for me to be “learning” about ANY of this crap! And do you know why?!

Because the effing numbers weren’t even real.

I tried to rationalize the situation in my brain. We were, essentially, learning about something that didn’t exist. We might as well have been sitting in a huge lecture hall learning about the life cycle and mating practices of the elusive Green-Toed Flabbergabbet. WHO ALSO ISN’T REAL.

The rage pulsed through my veins for only a few moments. Eventually, the room became less blurry, and a curiously intense sense of calm spread through me. I saw myself from outside of myself. It was like I was floating in the back corner of the room, looking at myself glaring at Mr. Kolas.

You wanna play it that way, old man? That’s how you wanna do it? All right then…

And this is the exact moment when I finally turned into one of those stoic bad asses who doesn’t give a flying f*ck about anything. I was the stressed-out, anal, over achieving ACT prep queen who suddenly didn’t give a rats ass if she got a 102% or a 12% on her math tests. And I felt the most wonderful freedom.

So! This is how the guy with the mohawk in 2nd period felt, huh? This is how it felt to not give a shit. I felt great. I felt like I could fly. I felt like I should go do something, or do nothing, but that either way, I wouldn’t give a shit about WHAT I did, and that felt f*cking great.

For the remainder of the class, I sat straight up in my chair and my eyes followed Mr. Kolas around the room. I wore a sly, knowing smirk. I would even nod in encouragement when Mr. Kolas’ eyes would flick to mine, briefly, as if to say, “Yes, Mr. Kolas! You are an incredible teacher, and I understand everything you are telling me about these fake numbers that don’t actually exist in real life.” I furiously scribbled “notes” in my notebook, which is to say I sketched pictures of dragons and sloths while acting completely absorbed in his lecture. Two could play at this game, Kolas.

30 minutes later, the bell rang. I packed up my notebook and walked proudly to the door. I looked back over my shoulder to get one last look at Kolas. He was waving to the other students, saying things like, “It’s alright if you don’t do well on your homework tonight, this is all new, and I know it can be confusing. Don’t worry guys! You’ll get it, I promise!”


Eddie: Welp! That was weird.
Emily: I am so f*cked in this class. I mean, IMAGINARY numbers? Are you effing kidding me? THEY’RE NOT REAL!!!
Me: It’s grilled cheese and tomato soup day, guys.
Emily: … What?
Me: Yeah. You heard me. Grilled cheese. And tomato. Soup.

And suddenly, Emily and Eddie felt a small twinge of the freedom that I had discovered. For it was grilled cheese and tomato soup day, a glorious day in any high school hot lunch program, and suddenly- nothing else mattered.


One Response to “The Day I Just Said “No” to Math In General.”

  1. September 11, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Haha! Wish I could comment more, but no time. Leaving tomorrow. Packing, shopping, returning, and quilting. Yes, I need samples finished before I leave.

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