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<b>MATH LIBERATION:</b>  The author overcame a lifelong fear thanks to this favorite book.

Paul Wellman

MATH LIBERATION: The author overcame a lifelong fear thanks to this favorite book.


Algebra Wasn’t As Scary As I Thought

How I Overcame the Fear of Math That Kept Me Out of College


Countless times people have asked, “Where’d you go to college?”

I would tell them that I started playing the violin professionally at 16 so I did not need a degree. The real reason I did not attend college was because of my paralyzing fear of math.

It started with a job interview at California Donuts in 1974. Their old-fashioned cash register did not add the dollars and cents. “You just have to do a little arithmetic in your head,” the manager said, “What’s 3 plus 9 minus 8?”

“Fourteen?” I guessed. “Sorry,” he said, “We need someone who can add.”

Later, I desperately wanted to attend Cal State Northridge and play in their orchestra, but I scored poorly in math on my SAT. My bright idea was to get my smartest friend to take my make-up exam. It was easy back then. I signed in at the front door, and she sneaked in the side door.

Those pesky test-review people caught me. They said I could not possibly have learned calculus in that short of a time. They said for me to get into university, I would have to transfer from junior college. They promised it would not remain on my record.

Instead, it remained a shameful secret in my heart. Life went on, and I made a decent living as a musician for more than 25 years.

Last January, I decided it was time to rectify the sins of my past. I enrolled in Math 004-Pre-Algebra at Santa Barbara City College at the age of 57. Professor Derek Milton was great. He even provided a tutor out of his own pocket.

When I launched into my “I’m horrible at math” diatribe, he stopped me. “Never say those words again,” he said. “You’re just reinforcing the negative. You are good in math.”

He was right! I loved sitting down with my new mechanical pencil and clean sheets of paper, figuring out problems. I had been given the chance to reclaim my youth with an extremely high fun quotient.

Life is messy and unruly. But math is orderly with simple rules — and it is glorious!

SBCC has given me another lesson: that a blessing of age is not being afraid to look stupid. During a lecture on “variables in fractions,” I would whisper to a classmate, “Did you get that?” Invariably, I would be the one to raise my hand with, “I don’t get it!”

My greatest achievement in life has been to be surrounded by smart, generous, loving people. It is still hard to ask for their help, but I have learned the most spiritual, transformational moments come from being truly stuck and forced to surrender. It is understandable why many students do not make it through to the semester’s end. But for those of us who stayed, showed up for tutoring, did the homework, and asked the most questions — it paid off.

Now I know that 3 + 9 – 8 = 4. The miracle is, I also know (14x9y10)(-8x5y4) = -112x14y14. With the help of my fellows, some hard work, and a little grace from God, I passed with a B.

What I’m most grateful for is that the person sitting in my seat on exam day was me.



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