The Reason I Have Nightmares About Math Class

Memoir Mondays

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “When Childhood Ends” which asks us to “Write about a defining moment in your life when you were forced to grow up in an instant (or a series of instants).”


A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a coworker about a phobia she has. She’s going through the required courses to become a teacher, and she is basically terrified of the math requirements because of a really bad experience she had with a math teacher back in high school. Her story made me think about the last experience I had with a math course, which made me grow up real fast in (what felt like) an instant.

I was always a great student when I was growing up. I genuinely enjoyed school for many years, I loved to read, and I was excellent at math. My teachers loved me, and I always made amazing grades. Aside from a few semesters of phys-ed, which I loathed (*cough*uber-nerd*cough*), I rarely ever made a mark outside of the 90’s. I was pretty proud of myself too. Being “smart” was a big part of my identity.

Eventually I went to university, and for a while things were still pretty chill. I took a technology course, and it was pretty easy because it was interesting. I was enjoying myself. All was well. My grades continued to be excellent.

But here’s the thing… The program I took required four terms of “technical math”, but if you wanted to save two terms and over a thousand dollars, you could choose to take two terms of Calculus instead. I’d always had excellent grades in math – I actually made a 99 in grade 12 Pre-Calculus – so the dean of our department suggested to me that I take the Calculus. Sure, I thought. Why not?

There were two options for Calculus professors at our school. I am to understand that I was lucky to choose the prof I did. Keep that in mind for the rest of the story, because it makes it even more depressing.

The professor I had for Calculus couldn’t have possibly cared less about actually teaching his students to understand Calculus. He had a system: walk into class, cover specific material – nothing more, nothing less – and leave. He never answered questions during class; his method was to tell people to keep those questions until after class, but then he’d run off immediately and never return to his office so that no one could ever actually ask him anything. He observed the number of office hours that was required, but they were always during other important courses, so you’d actually have to skip another class in order to catch him.

At first it wasn’t a big deal. I was good at math, so I could more or less keep up with Calculus. I wasn’t doing as great with tests as I’d always done, but I made up for it with the assignments. By the end of the first course I’d come out of things with a 76, and though it was a much lower math grade than I was used to I accepted it because I was still doing great with the rest of my courses and I was having fun, partying, becoming an “adult”. I didn’t think about the grade all that much.

Then came the second part of the course…Calculus 2. I can’t honestly tell you that I remember a great deal about this course because I’m pretty sure my subconscious has blocked most of it out for my own mental health. I do remember that I failed a test for literally the first time ever in that course. And I regularly screwed up on assignments, even the take-home ones. I just wasn’t getting it. The prof threw too much information at us too fast, wouldn’t let us ask questions, and then vanished into the ether at the end of every class, leaving us to try to figure things out on our own. By the time it came to the end of the term I did some quick calculations based on the tests and assignments and realized that I had to – had to – make at least a 70% on the final exam or I was going to fail the course.

The night before the final I was studying my bloody arse off, but nothing seemed to be sinking in. I was frantic. All I could think about was the fact that I was going to fail this class. For the first time in my life I was going to actually fail a class. I’d never failed anything before! And it wasn’t just a status thing – it wasn’t just the fact that I didn’t want to have to admit that I’d failed something. It was also the fact that if I failed that was over $500 right out the window and I’d have to the take the course again if I wanted to graduate. Those thoughts overwhelmed me. The course had been torture and I couldn’t imagine having to take it again. And I actually had the good prof – the other guy was a raving lunatic with tenure who actually actively tried to fail as many students as possible. I had no other options, no recourse. If I switched back to technical math at that point I wouldn’t have been able to fit it into my schedule so I’d have had to tack an extra year on to my program before I could actually graduate.

These were the only things I could think about while I was trying to study, and suddenly I found myself seriously, seriously panicking. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was going to start throwing up and never stop. I told my dad that I had to go to the hospital, and I must have actually looked pretty bad because instead of telling me to calm down and not worry so much like he usually did, he just took me.

The short version of the ending is that the doctor I saw diagnosed me with having a fairly severe anxiety attack and he wrote me a note to bring to the school that said I couldn’t take the exam that day for medical reasons. I wrote it instead a few days later when I’d managed to calm down, and I wound up passing the course with a whopping 52%.

The reason I tell this story, and the reason I say it made me grow up in an instant, is that this was the first real time in my life when I was faced with the fact that life isn’t always going to be easy. Up to that point I’d breezed through school. I’d hardly ever had to study for anything and was always in the upper percentile for grades. Not to mention that I’d had a natural talent toward the arts – music, writing, drawing – that I’d been praised for all throughout my childhood. Basically, I’d gotten used to not having to put much effort into things. And then, all of a sudden, I was having my easy comfort thrown right back in my face and STAPLED there. I was putting every bit of effort I could muster into that course and it still almost wasn’t enough. That Calculus class was the karate chop to the back of the neck that showed me that the real world wasn’t as simple and forgiving and nurturing as I’d, up to that point, been lead to believe.

I made it over that personal mountain, but to this day I still have nightmares about math class whenever I’m stressed out or having a rough time. My brain defaults to that time in my life and I have these horrible dreams about finding myself in the middle of a math course, with no memory of how I’ve gotten through the previous classes and a growing stack of late assignments that I have to figure out how to do immediately or else I’ll fail the class. Clearly my psyche was permanently affected by that course, as silly as it may sound.

And that concerns me, because the fact of the matter is that school has only gotten easier since I went through it. Kids can’t be held back a grade anymore, regardless of how poorly they may do in a course, because “no child is left behind”. They don’t lose points for poor spelling because it’s assumed that spellcheck and autocorrect will get them through life anyway. They even take away scoring in after-school sports so that no one feels bad about being the loser. Our children are coddled in a way that absolutely flabbergasts me, and it freaks me out because eventually, at some point, those kids are going to find themselves in a similar situation to the one I found myself in: real life is going to punch them right in the stomach and they’re not going to know how to deal with it because up to that point the grown-ups have been standing in front of the blows. Our kids won’t know how to fight.

When I started this post I didn’t intend to make a statement, but I’ll make one now:
Parents, teachers, and other responsible adults…we should be teaching our kids how to deal with disappointment. Don’t always give them what they want. Don’t praise them when they’ve clearly done a bad job. Don’t let them get away with shirking responsibilities. Teach them that the world won’t bend to them and that they actually have to be willing to put in the effort to create the future they want.

Hyperventilating panic attacks in the outpatients section of a hospital are no way to learn a lesson.

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One thought on “The Reason I Have Nightmares About Math Class

  1. This whole paticipation, give a trophy to everyone mentality drives me insane. Sure the kids feel good, but they’re just getting set up for disappointment. The real world is not like this. Great statement!

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