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Moira MacDonald’s ‘I was a Math Class Dropout’ finalist for book proposal prize

June 28, 2020

This is an excerpt from I Was a Math Class Dropout, by journalist Moira MacDonald, one of five finalists for the 2020 Penguin Random House MFA Prize. In the book, MacDonald sends herself back to math class at an adult high school to complete the math courses that foiled her as a teenager and explore why math is a four-letter word for so many students. The prize, established by Penguin Random House Canada in partnership with Westwood Creative Artists literary agency, recognizes the best nonfiction book proposal by a University of King’s College MFA in Creative Nonfiction student in their graduating year, or by an alumnus.


My classmates are splayed out in the hall, textbooks and notes scattered across the terrazzo floor next to the morning’s disposable coffee cups. We are in our 20s, 30s and beyond, with jobs and kids, but we’re still typical students, cramming at the last minute. Our school’s intensive, nine-week course schedule means today is our first test in Grade 9 math, only a week and a half into classes. It’s been 34 years since my last one. I doubt it went well.

The door to Room 503 opens and the rush is on for seats. I snag one several rows behind my usual spot, trying to create the suggestion of calm by methodically laying out freshly sharpened pencils, an eraser, pen, pencil sharpener, scientific calculator and a water bottle. The test papers are about to be handed out when a student diagonally behind me asks me for a pencil. Who doesn’t bring a pencil to a math test? I wonder as I pass one over. He sets me on edge. When the test begins, I instinctively round my shoulders over my paper and lean to one side to block his view. My god, I think. This is what I used to do in grade school.

You have 45 minutes, Ms. Law, our elfin-slim, tough-as-nails teacher tells us, plus an extra 20 minutes of “accommodation time” for students whose first language is not English or are slowed by a disability. This turns out to be a formality, because everyone gets the extra time, maybe to prevent arguments over who deserves it. We start at 10:45 a.m.

The questions are mostly multiple choice or true/false. Only four ask for in-depth answers, which makes it easier for a teacher to get through 50-plus papers and return the marks back quickly. None of this makes the test easy. About 10 minutes in, I start to sweat.

True/False – A first step in solving k + 4 = -10 is to add 4 to both sides of the equation.

Do I add 4? Or do I subtract? Is it both sides? Or only one? This is fundamental! How could I not know what to do? My inner math critic closes her eyes and shakes her head.

And yet, how typical I am in this moment. Math anxiety is so common that it is a recognized phenomenon, complete with its own label and definition (“an emotional feeling of nervousness and apprehension about one’s own ability to understand math, perform math functions and/or explain problems,” says one academic paper). There are researchers who study it and even an organization in the UK – The Maths Anxiety Trust — dedicated to raising awareness about the problem, standing as a beacon of hope for all of us who suffer from it.

The first scientific test of “numerical anxiety,” was devised in the 1950s. It was renamed MARS in the 1970s, for the Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale, and is still used in clinical studies. Math anxiety, or MA, can sap a student’s cognitive functions so severely that even if she knows what to do, she can’t do it. The worst sufferers can experience their anxiety as physical pain and show higher levels of activity in brain regions associated with negative emotions when they’re doing math. Meanwhile, the working memory parts of their brain — their “mental scratchpad,” key to working through complex math problems — aren’t nearly as busy. The mental resources of students under the influence of MA are hijacked by worry, interfering with their capacity to get through the problem. This only contributes to more MA through a pernicious self-fulfilling cycle, as students witness and fret over their inability to perform.

Hanging over my test paper, I pull back from retreating further into my primitive fight-or-flight brain by reminding myself that I am an adult. The same skills I’ve developed to deal with life’s curveballs – be it exploding water pipes soaking my hysterical downstairs neighbors or learning to nurse a wailing newborn in the night as my marriage disintegrates — can be applied to mathematics. Math geniuses don’t have a lock on them. We’ve all solved problems.

What can I do here? I decide to temporarily put aside the questions requiring the algebraic maneuver I’m unsure about and move on.

Kim’s Coffee Shop sells a cup of tea for $1.10, a cup of coffee for $1.25, and a cup of hot chocolate for $1.75. One busy day, 20 more cups of coffee than cups of hot chocolate were sold, and 30 more cups of coffee than tea, for a total of $260 for all three hot drinks. Let x be the number of cups of coffee sold that day. Write an equation that helps us find out how many cups of each drink were sold. (1 mark)

Word problems are the litmus test of a student’s ability to apply mathematical thinking to real world situations, even if coffee prices have moved on. They are also the bane of many a math student’s existence.  There are a gazillion varieties of this one, in ranging levels of difficulty. I showed one like it to my 85-year-old Aunt Janet only a month before. A chemistry graduate who embodied determination in everything she did, she took a scrap piece of paper and worked it out on the spot, incredulous that I found it so hard. I’d kept at those problems. Gradually, they’d become easier.

I’m going in.

I use my scrap paper to organize the information in the problem. What do I know? We have the coffee, the tea, and the hot chocolate. We know what each drink costs. We know the total sales of the three drinks. We know how many teas and hot chocolates were sold. Enter logic, possibly the most overlooked skill in the math curriculum. If there were 30 more cups of coffee than tea sold, there must be 30 fewer cups of tea than coffees. Likewise, there were 20 fewer cups of hot chocolate to coffees. These insights are critical to solving the problem.

I write:

Let # of cups of coffee sold be: x

Let # of cups of tea sold be: x – 30

Let # of cups of hot chocolate sold be: x – 20

I take a moment to breathe, then plug in the information I’ve been given about the cost of each type of drink. Finally, I relate it all to $260, the total dollar value of all drinks sold:

$1.75 (x – 20) + $1.10 (x – 30) + $1.25 (x) = $260

That becomes my answer, as much as Ms. Law has asked for. This small triumph injects me with enough confidence to return to that earlier algebra problem and apply the same kind of reasoning:

True/False – A first step in solving k + 4 = -10 is to add 4 to both sides of the equation.

I have to isolate k so I can figure out its value; that’s what’s meant by solving the equation. To do that, I must somehow “get rid” of the 4 from the left side. That won’t happen if I add another 4. I must have to subtract it. And Nina, my tutor before I returned to Grade 9, always said that whatever you do to one side of an equation, you must do to the other, or they won’t be equal anymore. If I subtract 4 from the left side, I must have to subtract 4 from the right:

k +4 – 4 = -10 – 4

k + 0 = -14

k = -14

The answer is False. In future, I will look at this question and wonder how I could get so knotted up over it. What’s saved me in this moment though has been stepping back and choosing reason over fear.

Math anxiety is remarkably widespread, even among average to high performers. Nearly a third of 15-year-olds have reported feeling helpless when working on math problems. A quarter of four-year US college students and as many as 80 percent of its community college students have moderate to high levels of MA. Even most adults complain of at least some number jitters, which can start from somebody telling them as kids that they weren’t math people, getting into a panic on a timed math test, or simply being in a poor learning environment that wasn’t able to help them move beyond a troublesome topic.

All this nervousness has real world consequences. MA has been studied in nurses because second-guessing can lead to medication errors. Parents can pass it on to their kids. So can teachers who have not recovered from their own math traumas. At least 14 percent of the difference in students’ math performance across countries in a 2012 international assessment was chalked up to differences in MA levels. Put more plainly, greater MA resulted in a student performing nearly a year behind other students, on average. Left unchecked, it throws up roadblocks to students’ school and career options. It can change lives, and not for the better.

With pretty much everybody still writing at 11:45, Ms. Law extends the accommodation time another 15 minutes. I’m done by 11:58 and start checking over my work. I’ve probably made my usual silly mistakes in my rush to get through the questions. But I’m feeling optimistic. What a shift from where my mind was only an hour earlier when all seemed on the brink of disaster.

The tests come back the next day. Mine has a 96 written next to my name. Someone asks Ms. Law what the highest mark was. “Ninety-six,” she says. No other mark I have had in high school math has come remotely close to this one. It’s taken 34 years of life lessons, plus hours of sometimes tears-inducing seat time, but this former “math dummy” has made it to the head of the class — for today anyway. Let the bells peal. The math anxiety dragon has been slain.


Moira MacDonald is a Toronto-based writer specializing in education issues.