tales from the dork side - life on the web
tuesday, august 5, 1997:
math hatred

updated precisely as often as the gods demand, and not more

damn those frames to hell

When I was 6 or 7 years old we used to have the middle of the day where we all had to sit down and do whatever was on the next 3 pages of the math book. Everyone else in class was pretty good about this. I tended to have problems, particularly when I hit one of the end-of-chapter review pages with 60 problems on them. I would sit at my desk/table, which was the only table in the room not paired with anyone else's that month, alone facing the back of a bookcase, and stare at the problems. I'd maybe do four or five, or a whole page, then have to stop and get upset. Looking at the other students, noses down and quiet, would just make me madder. It was ridiculous, painful and pointless. I knew how to do it. Maybe the teacher would come by, notice that I had stopped working, and tell me to concentrate. I would keep trying to work but my brain would keep bouncing out of it. Simple mindless multiplication questions would turn opaque and I couldn't answer them, I could only sit and stare and get madder and madder.

Eventually math time would be over and I still wouldn't be finished, while the other kids got to go ahead to language-arts time, where we had these wide pieces of paper that were blank on the top half and wide-ruled on the bottom half, and we'd write short three-sentence stories and draw a picture on top to go with them.

But if I wasn't finished, I had to keep doing my math while the other kids got to do what I loved so much. This made me get worse and worse until it was recess and they made me go upstairs to a cold room next to the principal's office. This room had one table, one light, no carpet on the mottled dark concrete floor, and was sort of cold if you didn't have long sleeves on. They put me there with my math book and paper until I finished. For some reason they thought that I could actually work in that environment, that I wouldn't just sit there trying to think of ways to hurt my teachers without getting in trouble.

 . . .

 . . . Why do I hate math? Well, doctor, he said as he pulled the handle and kicked back on the La-Z-Boy reclining psychiatrist's couch, I guess it started around the second or third week of kindergarten. We had "consumable" paperback math books, well less than an inch thick, the first in the "Mathematics Around Us" series with the Helvetica type on the cover over a nice big natural photograph of a cow in a pen. I had already had some trouble: maybe even the first day, I had made some fuss over something and Mrs. Scanlon had to drag me behind this chipboard partition thing so I couldn't watch the movie with class at the end of the day. It was random - I had been doing fine all day, no crying or anything about being in school, but then I wanted to sit somewhere I wasn't supposed to or something, and I just kept making a fuss about it and being loud while the projector played, and this not-too-old woman had to drag me across the floor by one arm, while I cried, and have me sit behind this little pastel-painted partition with tiny holes in it. There were two other kids sitting behind there being punished with me, for other reasons, other things they'd done during the day. They looked at me like I was a little bit crazy for being so upset. They seemed resigned to it. They didn't see what the fuss was all about; they just figured they belonged there.

But after that things went well in the classroom for a few days: she'd tell us to get out our mathbooks and lay ‘em out in front of ourselves, and I'd chug along pretty happily doing addition problems. After all, this stuff was nothing they hadn't covered on Sesame Street. We were just doing a few pages a day of extremely basic stuff and I kind of enjoyed it.

I don't have specific memories of when math got rough in kindergarten but I know it happened pretty quickly. I know we had already covered carrying. Just one day we all opened our books for the day's exercises and I found that I didn't sail through them as quickly. I'd find one I couldn't get immediately and the little thinking loops done over and over started to annoy and frustrate me. It took more and more energy to get myself to start doing the next one.

So soon I was making all kinds of noise about how much I hated math. It wasn't hard, or rather, it was just hard enough to piss me off instead of confusing me. No matter how much of it you did, there was always more. It never came out well enough unless you gave it a lot more effort than it was worth. And there was no apparent reward, except that later, it would be a required prerequisite for more of the same.

 . . .

 . . . Math wasn't a big problem in kindergarten, since there wasn't really all that much of it to do. Most of my problems in kindergarten came from the bigger kids screaming and laughing about how big and fat and dumb I was. After kindergarten, I went to a small, private elementary school - not so much rich-private as niche-market private. It mostly catered to kids with discipline problems (which is what I generally was, after the big kids had come down into the kindergarten playground at recess and put me through the wringer for the day).

This new school, up in the Berkeley hills, was fairly progressive; class size was small; my class at the time wasn't more than a dozen kids. The teachers at this school went by their first names, they didn't believe in letter grades. And they took me to a cold room by myself when I made a fuss about all the repetetive math. I know; it's not as though I got paddled, or sexually abused, or, I don't know, forced to watch Barney or something. I just had to lose my favorite subject in favor of my worst - it was my own fault, oh yes it was - and, of course, be an overweight misfit kid constantly surrounded by the East Bay's finest discipline problems. I know that my seven-year-old self was the kind of pupil that made teachers dread coming to work. I know all that.

I don't think that they were trying to teach me that all work is punishment, but they couldn't have done a better job if they were. Ever since then, it seems like I can't ever have a lot of work that I don't want to do without feeling like dying.

 . . .

 . . . Actually, that's not true. Employment is different; I don't tend to have a hard time doing menial things with my brain when a job is on the line. And I'm not just saying that. But school is another set of stakes. Oh; also, washing dishes is a lot easier than it used to be. For a while during my adolescence, washing the dishes really made me nuts; now I can handle it. Maybe it's just that I've reached a point in my life where lounging around all day reading magazines isn't as compelling as it once was. Now that school isn't sucking up two thirds of my life, household chores feel like less of an infringement on the free time that I do have.

The problem finds other places to pop up, though. I majored in art in college, because it was more fun (and therefore less work) than English, but my last semester wound up being tougher than any huge research paper I'd ever tortured myself over (to the point of not handing it in). Instead of painting like a demon for three months, as I should have been, I mostly sat in my studio with my head spinning. And now the activity of writing, after spending so much time on the back burner, resists me more than it ever did before. It just takes work, that I'm not usually willing-enough to put in. Study Skills; Work Habits. Never had ‘em taught to me. How different would I be today if I had just given in all those years ago, made up my mind to give it as long as it took with no worries, and worked on all those drill-and-kill math problems? How much better off? How much worse off?


The reality of the San Francisco job market is falling well short of the ideal Web industry I built up in my head, and on my screen, in college, but that's to be expected. When I was a sophomore on the East Coast, legends were circulating about the HTML scripters who were making $100 an hour back in SF. I heard these tales and, like an idiot, decided to stay in school. By the time I graduated, New York was hiring all the web designers in the world, but I couldn't live there; I needed to be in San Francisco, where half of the famous old web shops are headed for Chapter 11.

Besides that, here's something instructive from Alex Massie's new mailing list: "I spend an average of 16 hours a day in front of a computer. I wake up at 7:30, get ready for work, check my email. That's the first time I log on. I go to work for eight hours, on the computer, of course. I come home, and try to answer all my email, try to work on this or that project, try to give good constructive criticism to people who ask for my opinions on their efforts, try to squeeze it all in before I have to go to bed. I go to bed at 2 a.m. most nights. I rarely get enough sleep. There's too much to do. ... If I didn't spend all my time online, then I would die in this market. I can't afford to have a life. Not if I want to be a digital designer. People who are coasting along in their work, who stop at 5pm and go to a movie instead of reading about the latest versions of this or that, those people will be out of work in less than a year."

Now, I'm interested in the latest versions of this or that, but I'm interested in other things too. So, young starry-eyed webgeeks, if the above sounds like the kind of life you want, go for it. Myself, I'm interested in exploring the possibilities of having a life. I'm interested in a day job. Sue me.

I do have an idea for a novel. I've done some writing, but it's still really just an idea. I need to figure out ways to make it my first priority, and there are too many other things I'm interested in. Writing comics, drawing comics, web stuff, games... even these essays are frankly an obstacle, a distraction, although I guess they're good practice in some ways.

Anyway; the redesign. It's pretty different but I like it. But when you resize the window in Netscape 4.01 Mac, all the style-sheet stuff goes away. Sucks. I like NS4.0, I find it admirably stable except when it hangs my machine while starting up.

For my next new page I need to finish up all my Marathon maps. Great, more distractions. =^)

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Tales from the Dork Side are copyright 1997 Mike Sugarbaker. Email for permission to redistribute.