Some point between grades three and four, I decided that I wasn’t “a numbers person.” I recall cautiously seeking my father’s help on a long division problem one afternoon, feeling sheepish and frustrated with myself. He was sitting in the sun room, watching the news, and embarrassment washed over me as he read the problem and then looked up at me expectantly. You should know this, seemed to be the subtext. I’d never needed help in any other subject and so I mistook the alien feeling of being challenged for the first time in my academic career as a symptom of intellectual impotence.
“I’m bad at math,” I told myself. Which was entirely untrue. I have earned straight As (often A plusses) in every single mathematics course I have ever taken — handily. But I opted for the easiest possible level of math every year and told myself that I was only doing well because I was in with the remedial bunch. I was thrilled when I learned I’d earned a scholarship at college that waived every area requirement and sailed gleefully through UVA without a lick of math.
I regret this. I commend UVA for bending the rules for promising and motivated students, but — c’mon. I was a coddled, self-involved eighteen-year-old not to be trusted with making mature decisions, let alone building my own curriculum. So I still find myself saying that “I am not a numbers person” because I am embarrassed that I am only capable of high school-level math and appalled at my lack of grit. I have never known myself to back away from anything, least of all challenging intellectual chestnuts, and so I often ruefully puzzle over my indisposition to math as a girl.
It would be easy to step into a conversation about gender norms here, but I don’t see it that way. Frankly, I always considered myself smarter than the boys in my class. I was usually competing with two other smart girls — a girl named Patty in particular — for top marks in grade school, and then I attended an all-girls high school, and so boys were largely removed from the competitive landscape.
I think it was more because so many people recognized my talent in language arts at an early age but I didn’t hear the same resounding applause in the mathematics arena. For several years, my teachers would seat me outside the classroom during language arts to complete advanced dittos by myself, recognizing that I was punching well above my weight in the subject. I was talented in reading and writing, but I was exceptional at grammar, whose rules made perfect sense to me. I was frankly shocked at the lack of grammar comprehension among my classmates when I matriculated to Visitation, a prestigious all-girls high school. I remember gawking when a classmate could not distinguish an adverb from an adjective in my freshman-year English class. I’d been diagramming sentences since nine or ten and it felt like a joke.
Funny, though: grammar is more or less the mathematics of writing. There are rules to follow; parts of speech to parse; tidy hand-written diagrams on paper. We usually think of “language arts” as creative, or subjective — but grammar is all about rote memorization, the application of rules, and problem-solving. Circle the antecedent. Underline the adverbs. Diagram the sentence. Grammar transforms what appears to be a loose and fluid practice (writing) into something that feels a lot like science. It irritates me that I did not perceive this parity and ask myself “Am I really not good at math?”
But I had patrons galore as I pursued the craft of writing and I intuitively compared their density to the total absence of a personal mathematics cheering squad. My grandfather, my uncle, my parents, several teachers had all taken an interest in my writing and had encouraged me in various ways. My mother enrolled me in writing workshops. My grandfather took me to lunch at Chevy Chase Club and taught me about poetic meter over a grilled cheese sandwich, showing me how he counted each “foot” (a term of art in the study of poetry) on a different finger of his hand–using a Shakespearean sonnet as an examplar, no less. My uncle sent me photocopies of J.D. Salinger’s short fiction with little notes attached to the front: “Keep writing.” In seventh grade, a few years after I decided I was “not a numbers person” — this, despite the fact that math at that point felt easy to me, busywork to be completed without effort while eating Combos on the floor of my bedroom — a young college graduate, Mr. Caulfield, became my English teacher. He was twenty-two, extremely handsome, and impressed with my writing. He encouraged me to enter a local student poetry contest and I beamed with pride when I was named a finalist. I wore a black watch tartan kilt, a white button-down blouse, and a pair of black patent leather loafers with a chunky, 2″ high heel that I’d all but bartered my soul away for in a protracted negotiation with my mother. My mother and Mr. Caulfield sat in the audience while I stammered my way through my maudlin and flowery attempt at poetry. Afterwards, Mr. Caulfield gave me a small bouquet of flowers and a manila folder with my name on the front. Inside was a spiral-bound book of poetry he’d written — “Heels to a Cliff,” by Paul Caulfield. I now question the judiciousness of presenting an impressionable twelve year old with a book of poetry that appears to have been grappling with themes of suicide, but at the time, I was floored. I kept the flowers at my bedside and read the book cover to cover. I didn’t understand it, but no matter. I felt recognized, initiated. I was a poet! He was a poet! I was good at something! I never once in the years of schooling that followed doubted my talent or ability when it came to reading or writing. I completed AP Lit early. I took 400-level English seminars when I was a first- or second-year in college. I doubled and tripled up on the literature coursework wherever possible. “I’m good at this,” I told myself. “I’m a letters person.”
When I took the GREs for graduate school, I was anxious about the math, having not taken any mathematics in over four years. So you can imagine my shock when I discovered I had earned higher marks on the mathematics portion than I had on the writing portion. (Let that sink in for a minute. I was essentially pursuing an advanced degree in writing.) The discrepancy in scores was ironic and disappointing but secretly thrilling. “I could have been a numbers person after all,” I told myself.
But as it turns out, my aversion to math made space for my love of language, a love that has carried me from the sing-song, rhyming fustian of my youth to the arduous, searching expositions of graduate school and finally to this blog that has brought me such deep pride and purpose as I write to learn what I think.
So it’s not so bad, not being a numbers person.
I’m happy here among the letters.
+Speaking of grammar: an ode to the em dash.
+And speaking of language: words I hate.
+This mirror is amazing — and on sale! Would completely transform an entryway hanging above a narrow console.
+I am seriously lusting after a matching top-and-skirt situation — there are so many epic styles out there right now. My top picks:
+This classic weekender bag is currently 30% off (and it never goes on sale!)
+The color and ethos of this dress is fantastic. It would totally swallow me alive but I love the thought of it.
+People love these rainbow toy sets — this is the ultra small one, but there are even bigger ones! — for promoting imaginative play.
+So fun and easy to wear — and 30% off.
+This pretty top is now marked down to $44!