Not a Numbers Person.

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.

Post Scripts.

+Speaking of grammar: an ode to the em dash.

+And speaking of language: words I hate.

+A little something on understanding the difference between intellectual snobbery and the accurate use of language.

+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 HAPPY CITRUS WITH MATCHING TOP

THIS SET IN WHITE LINEN

THIS THIERRY COULSON WITH MATCHING SKIRT

HORROR VACUI WITH MATCHING SKIRT

THIS FLORAL WITH THIS TOP

+This classic weekender bag is currently 30% off (and it never goes on sale!)

+Super pretty, and kind of in the vein of nightgown dressing.

+Pretty, feminine tumblers for your morning juice.

+The color and ethos of this dress is fantastic. It would totally swallow me alive but I love the thought of it.

+CUTE centerpiece for a child’s birthday.

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+Chip clips can be chic, too

+People love these rainbow toy sets — this is the ultra small one, but there are even bigger ones! — for promoting imaginative play.

+This adorable bubble is marked down to $34. I absolutely adore this brand for special occasions — or occasional splurges just because. And don’t even get me started on this. IT IS SO GOOD.

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19 Comments

  1. This post SO reminded me of my own education. I similarly felt that I was not a “numbers person” as math was routinely the only subject in which I had to apply myself to get As — ha! I never dwelled on the fact that I was, from elementary school, in the honors math classes; just that I had to work to get good grades, so therefore I must not be cut out for math. This persisted through high school, even though I took AP Stats and got a 5 on the exam! I still had an inferiority complex about not taking AP Calc and subsequently never pursued math in college. I regret this now!

    Anyway, enough blathering about me … this post really struck a chord with me! The comments have also really been interesting to read … I especially loved what Molly said about the offhand comments that others make. Certain comments do tend to stick with me (through decades!) and I find that really interesting.

    LOVE the matching sets you posted, especially the Horror Vacui, Cara Cara, and Rachel Antonoff options! Also, I haven’t bought anything from ASOS in ages, but am so tempted by that broderie midi dress! So cute.

    P.S. The Grimm’s rainbow is my signature baby gift topper! Haha. I have one myself, which lives on my dresser and makes me smile, and I’ve given one to each of my nieces as well.

    xx

    1. Sounds like so many of us had similar experiences. I have been thinking a lot about this subject since writing this post and I also wonder if there is something innately more forgiving about writing-centric disciplines, where there is more “gray” between correct/incorrect. (Although I did have a friend in college who was majoring in econ and math I think and she once said, dismissively, “I mean, English is just easier from the standpoint that you can’t really ever be wrong.” I took great issue with this then, feeling my pride injured, but she was also, frankly, wrong.) Maybe it was easier for me to dance around a subject or to be able to argue my point after the fact with the written word — versus just being told, “No, that sum is incorrect.” ?? But then this doesn’t jive with the fact that I excelled at grammar, where there is a right/wrong answer. It’s either an adjective or it’s not. Etc. Anyway, lots to chew on here…

      xxx

    2. You’re exactly right about grammar — there are clear rules (and therefore wrongs and rights). I can sort of understand why one might think that the language arts are “easier” in that respect, but I agree with you — it’s not accurate. I do think that certain people just have an innate knack for grammar, though of course, as with anything, it helps to study it and practice.

      xx

  2. A few years ago, I ran into one of my high school math teachers, and we talked about just this! I told him I wished I hadn’t categorized myself as an “English/history” person, because I did enjoy geometry and physics a lot. I feel similarly that I wish I’d challenged myself with a tough math or science class during college, and I regret losing that opportunity. My former teacher told me that he thinks almost all students sort themselves this way, though he wishes schools did more to discourage that binary way of thought. It made me feel a little better that it takes the perspective of age to see this – another reminder that with maturity comes a better ability to see the big picture.

    1. So interesting! I even feel like the concept of “right-brained / left-brained” reinforce the concept that we are either/or, rather than “full-brained.” Ha. Thanks for sharing this. xx

  3. I’ve been chewing on this post all day- thank you for such thought provoking fodder (and wonderfully written, as always). I have rewritten and deleted around ten different anecdotes, thoughts, arguments, etc but can’t seem to wrangle my words they way I want today. I could only muster the following, haha. You gave us an excellent prompt!

    When I was around 16, a girlfriend and I shared a conversation that I have never forgotten. It was whispered through that delicious, truth-telling haze of teenage sleepovers, “You know you can just decide to be different whenever you want? No one defines you but you. Whenever you want!” I remember thinking she seemed to be talking more to herself than me, but I understood and it has been seared into me ever since. We’re all so desperate to be known, by ourselves and by others, that we are often quick to adopt observations, descriptions or actions as fixtures of who we are. It feels good to say I know myself and I am *this* and even better to hear someone else say, I know you and you are *this.* Figuring out who you are is unending and often exhausting and frustrating. It’s nice, sometimes, to just accept what we’re told by others, and they can often be right. I just also try to remind myself whenever I can, “You know you can be different whenever you want? No one defines you but you. Whenever you want!” None of us are stuck in what we are- and how empowering to be able to choose what we want to stick, and what we want to let go.

    1. I love this! I can totally imagine the sleepover scene and that 16-year-old self-definition angst. I think you hit on an interesting point, too, that it can be “nice, sometimes, to just accept what we’re told by others,” whether that’s out of exhaustion or ease or confusion. “They seem me from the outside; they must know!” Thank you for sharing this!!

      xx

  4. Love what Molly said about the fluidity and overlap between the two. Math is the underpinning of language and language brings math to life, though it took some time for that to click for me. Taking Arabic in college was the first time I realized that there were formulas not only in the grammar but in the spelling and meaning of the words themselves. (I’m generalizing, but in Arabic, most words have a three consonant root, ie k/t/b equates to knowledge, and by adding certain suffixes or prefixes you get library, book, read etc.) anyways, the same principle applies to any proto-indo-European language, which I found both mind blowing and comforting.
    This is based solely on New Yorker profiles, but I’d also say there are plenty of similarities between pure mathematicians and writers, poets in particular! Lots of solidarity walking and a knack for getting at underlying principles, I guess.

    1. Wow – thank you for this! Really interesting — your comment about the structure of Arabic words/language also called to mind computer programming, which also, I think, sits an intersection between math and language.

      “A knack for getting at underlying principles” — wow. Had not thought about that either! Thank you for these provocations today…xx

  5. Thought provoking stuff. As a lover of rules and frequent visitor to your Pressure is a Choice post (seriously, I’ve never related to anything more!), I had never considered that math should be a perfect fit for me with its boundaries and structure.

    I gave up on numbers early, announcing in fifth or sixth grade that I “just wasn’t good at math.” I joined Talented and Gifted reading programs and took every AP English course. I too decided I was a words person. But unlike you, by not dedicating time to learning the concepts, that eventually came to be true. When the time came for me to take the GRE and I scored below average in math, I felt, at 21(!!) my first real academic failure. Interesting to reflect on how the things we tell ourselves become fulfilling prophecies.

    I wonder, do you find yourself hesitant to try the things you don’t think you are, or will be, good at? The older I get, the more I wonder if I’m boxing myself in. Not numbers, letters. Not this, that. That the pressure I put myself under to do all things right and on time and just so closes me off from areas where I might struggle at first but eventually grow to love.

    1. Hi Annie! Really thought-provoking question!! I sat and wondered about that for awhile. I would say I generally do avoid things I don’t believe I’ll be good at. I am always playing to my strengths. That said…there are little avenues that I keep open and continue to challenge myself to learn and get outside my comfort zone — fashion and parenting come to mind, and sometimes new styles of writing, too. I was afraid to write some of my more memoir-esque posts at first because they felt too personal, too…mushy. But they’ve been the ones that have received the most love and that have endeared me to you and vice versa. Still: parenting, fashion, writing — those still all feel kind of safely within my wheelhouse.

      The last times I really went out on a limb? When I started an in-person book club component of this blog (two years ago), and when I decided to take a beginner tennis class (probably five years ago). I was especially nervous about the latter. When was the last time I made a fool of myself physically in front of strangers?! AH! It was nervewracking but also liberating but also horrible but also great. I couldn’t wait for it to be over and yet I had fun and I was determined to improve and — above all else — there were people worse than me. HA. How lame is that?!

      Anyway, your question has made me think maybe I should step outside my comfort zone again, and soon. Landon said now would be a good time to pick up an instrument or a hobby. I’ve always wanted to do needlepoint/cross-stitch/knitting — something like that. And I used to be passable at piano; would be lovely to tune myself up there.

      Blech – now I’m just rambling. Thanks for writing in and making me think.

      Also: I’m so touched that you revisit that post! Thank you for letting me know 🙂

      xx

  6. This post really stirred a lot within me! Removed from school, it’s crazy to remember that how subject was silo-ed and we were”numbers people” or “writers” or “good at language” and considered ourselves “not a numbers person/writer/linguist/etc. etc. The world is so much more fluid than that!

    It’s funny what sticks with us. This would probably kill my mother for her to hear it, but she once said something to the effect of “you’re just not a great writer” when I was in middle school. I think she was more frustrated that the school district wasn’t teaching us in a traditional, formal way of writing than anything having to do with me, but boy did that stick. Despite the fact that I continued to excel in English, I remember my shock when my honors bio teacher pointed out after a lab report that she thought I was a great writer – I considered that comment a fluke. It wasn’t until I was pursuing a humanities degree in college that I realized how easily I could write and how naturally it came to me. I’m now prepping to go to law school, which requires sooo much writing. I’m happy that I stuck with it, but any less than A grade on a paper reinforced the idea that I was just a bad writer.

    However, even though I was always in advanced and honors science classes, my mom also told me I was squeamish in high school (which I was, compared to my siblings, who completely were unfazed by everything, but probably not compared to the general population – I just hate vomit!). I never considered a career in medicine or science a possibility for me because of that. Now, I have grown up a little bit, I’m no longer squeamish, and I find it so silly that I let that former personality trait completely close off an entire field that I am so interested in now.

    I don’t have any major takeaways other than – you never know what you say that will really stick with someone, positively or negatively. My incredibly loving, supportive, thoughtful mother would be probably be horrified by my comment. and I’m sure your father would not have wanted you to take that you weren’t a numbers person from one struggle with long division!

    PS – I do wish that grammar taught more often. I feel like it was phased out while I was in elementary school.

    1. Molly, that’s so true — the little throwaway comments people make about you that startle you and draw you out of yourself and help you understand how you must be perceived. I can still think of many comments about me and my appearance that have stuck with me for decades and decades — most of them positive, but some of them disheartening.

      Some thing I didn’t really tease out in this particular post is that I DO believe that everything happens for a reason and that everything — dispiriting/disparaging comments and all — leads us to where we’re meant to be. It took me awhile to come to this conclusion and sometimes I still feel so damned responsible for everything in my life that I forget to sort of surrender to the flow of things, but it brings me peace to reflect on that when I pause and wonder why I didn’t, for example, pursue math.

      xx

  7. Oh I loved this post Jen. You absolutely have a gift with words! Math & science we’re always my strongest subjects, and I excelled at the grammar portion of English class too. Writing has always been a bit harder for me (I won’t admit how long it sometimes takes me just to write a card or email…), so I adore when someone can articulate a thought in a way that just makes perfect sense. You have done this so often over the years I’ve been reading and it keeps me coming back 🙂 It’s like you take a though right out of my head with just the right words. Thank you for sharing your gift with words with us!

    1. Wow – what a compliment! I’m so flattered. Thank you. You have no idea how much you just transformed a rather drab and tedious Monday afternoon…

      One thing I will toss out for you: when I was teaching writing to college freshman, one thing we underscored was that reading and writing are processes, and that the slowest in either category are often the most attentive ones 🙂 So speed need not be a measure of skill!

      xx

    2. You are most welcome Jen!

      And thank you for your thought – I will absolutely remind myself of that next time I get stuck writing something!

  8. I love this one and it’s something I’ve thought a lot about. I was the exact opposite as a child. I was told or I believed I was good with numbers and destined to be a terrible writer. I think some of the ways you view yourself as a child can be limiting beliefs that you carry with you through life, and only recently have I begun questioning if they are actually true. Another limiting childhood belief for me was “oh, she’s just shy.”

    1. Oh, I totally know what you mean by that, even beyond childhood. I had the reputation of being quiet and well-mannered among Mr. Magpie’s friends (and I am), but, while flattering, I found their decorousness in my presence overwhelming, especially when I noticed that they were much more casual and more likely to toss out a semi-crude joke when I was not around. I found myself so self-aware and performative for many years…it’s hard to break out of a mold you’ve built for yourself or that has been in some way constructed with or around you. Or, it was then. I feel a lot more comfortable with myself now. xx

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