an open letter to any student who feels “behind” in math

Back in 2013, the drawings were extra bad.

Eight years ago, I launched this blog with a confessional essay called What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math. Eight years later, people still stumble across it. The comments section has become a record of their struggles, a guestbook at the Historic Home of Feeling Stupid, full of heartbreaking signatures.

The other day, a student named Madelaine wrote this:

I feel really horrible right now. Last year I have dropped precal and applied math to take essentials because I was so scared of failing math. This year I overcame my fear and I’m currently taking the course I dropped last year (Grade 10 Precal/applied) but its really hard. At this very moment I am failing the class by 2% I’ve been avoiding a huge test about the whole unit and I’m struggling to get by.

Here’s the part that especially gets me:

I’m currently in grade 11 and doing a Grade 10 math course! it’s very embarassing but at the end of the day I know I have to take it now sooner than later.

To her, it’s so simple it barely needs saying.

Grade eleven student.

Grade ten math.

Exclamation point.

I had almost forgotten what it’s like to be that age, when a year looms so large.

I am currently what archaeologists call “Dad-aged.” At my age, like most ages, it doesn’t really matter how old you are. I have professional role models in their 20s. I have friends in their 60s. The students I taught when I was 22 are currently 25. They’re older now than I was then; I could buy them a beer.

(By the way, OCHS grads, I’ll do it! First round is on me! Seriously, get in touch!)

A year is nothing. It’s a dozen beats of a hummingbird’s wings. There’s no reason to care whether someone was born in 2005 or 2006, except that the educational system is a big bureaucracy with a limited number of desks. So we draw lines on the calendar, and lump together kids who fall between the same pair of lines – never mind their passions, their struggles, their values, or their experiences in this world.

You’re not “behind,” Madelaine. That’s just the label that our antfarm of a school system has slapped on your back. You’re learning. That’s what counts. You’re doing a hard thing, and doing hard things is how we grow.

Last and most of all: ask for the help you need. It’s our work as adults to prepare you to thrive in the world, to help you become the person you want to be. Math class is just one step on that journey; it’s too often a nasty step, one that trips people up and skins a lot of knees. But you know what that means? There are lots of people out there who have felt that pain, and lots more who want to help you avoid it or overcome it.

If you’re reading this, Madelaine or anyone else: I believe in you.

Now, to be fair, I don’t know you personally, so if you’re an ax murderer, or even just an aspiring ax murder, then I do not believe in you. Please change careers.

But for the rest of you: I believe in you. I know that people are capable of great things, even (and perhaps especially) when they don’t believe it themselves.

That means you.

Forget “behind.” Keep moving ahead. You’ll get to where you’re going.


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