Facing the Ghosts of Math Classes Past

October 23, 2015

My eighth-grade daughter is struggling in math class, and it’s breaking my heart.

To be honest, she struggled last year, too. I expected a little struggle, though; she was taking advanced math, after all. Just that concept–“advanced math”–sort of blew my mind, because math has always been my personal Waterloo, and here she was, plugging away at pre-Algebra at age 12. Hell, I couldn’t even help her with her homework.

“You can never leave me,” I told my husband. “Who would help D. with her math homework? We’d totally be screwed.”

“You’re keeping me around solely for my math ability,” my husband said dryly. “Awesome.”

“You do have other talents,” I admitted. “You can always kill that one pesky fly in the house and you snake a mean toilet. Still, it’s the math ability that makes you golden.”

At the end of my daughter’s 7th-grade year, we weren’t joking any more. Even with my husband’s guidance and extra practice, she barely earned a C in pre-Algebra. She took an evaluation/test for next year’s math placement and tanked it. Her teacher recommended that she not advance to Algebra 1.

When I read the note from her teacher, I wasn’t that alarmed. So she drops down to grade-level math…who cares?

My husband had a completely different reaction.

“Jesus,” he muttered, scanning the note, eyes narrowed. “One test and she moves down? That’s it?”

“She totally bombed, though,” I said.

“But she can do this; I know she can,” he countered. “Does she automatically move down or can we argue that she stay put?”

“I don’t know, but… should we argue for that?  What’s the shame in performing at grade-level?” I said. “There is nothing wrong with being at grade level…”

He looked at me like I was nuts.

Of course he did.

Of course he thought I was nuts, because my husband is one of those freaks of nature who never struggled in school–not in ONE single subject. Mr. Freakshow was stellar in all areas: math, science, history, languages, you name it. Not only was he adept at everything, he was a brilliant test-taker. He was a National Merit Scholar and got a sky-high score on his SAT. He spent his teenage years breezing through advanced everything.

Grade-level? Not in his vernacular.

I wasn’t exactly a slouch academically in high school; I took advanced English and advanced Science classes. I won awards in both history and foreign language (German, ja). I made good grades that I studied very, very hard for.

But then there was math.

Math was the real foreign language, and no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many extra hours I spent studying or asking my teachers for extra help–and there were lots of hours–it didn’t make sense. Year after year, I’d complete every lick of homework, put in the sweat and the overtime, and when I sat down to take a test? Blank space. White noise. I’d sit there, paralyzed, watching as the clock ticked down. I’d hand in my test with a sick, sinking feeling in my gut.

Almost worse than the tests were the hours spent in class, because there always was that point where the teacher would finish a lesson and say, “Does that make sense? Everyone understand? Any questions?”

I’d think, “No. No. And yes,” and wonder if I dared raise my hand again, because I was that kid, and you know what I’m talking about, I was that one kid in class who was dumber than everyone else and slower than everyone else and everyone else knew it. They knew it and were grateful that it wasn’t them. I was that kid. It sucks to be that kid.

“She kind of breaks my heart,” my 11th grade math teacher told my parents. “Every morning and lunch hour, she’s in here for help. I’ve never seen any kid work so hard, and she just…” he sighed and shook his head. “Well. I just have to say. She couldn’t work any harder.”

Other teachers were not so kind. My persistent ignorance was annoying. I could see the irritation flash across their faces and knew they were thinking, “Jesus, this girl is a blockhead.”

Did I want that for my daughter?

Of course I didn’t. And watching her struggle brought up all of the old ghosts of math classes past, rattling their chains and moaning in my corners.

In the end, though, it wasn’t my decision.

After much discussion, my daughter decided that rather than drop down a level, she’d spend the summer with a math tutor. She went four days a week all summer, without protest. She didn’t even pout about spending the summer that way–not even once.

“Man, I’m impressed,” I told my husband. “If I had to spend my summer doing math, I’d be bitter as hell.”

By the end of the summer, the tutoring club said they were happy with her progress. Miss D. went into Algebra 1 feeling confident and proud of her hard work.

And then the test scores started rolling in. 44%. 56%. 60%. 47%.

Even with all of that extra help. All of that extra effort. She even did extra hours of homework voluntarily, for no credit, just practice.

I watched her confidence falter, then fade, then crash.

“I hate this,” I told my husband. “Do you know how absolutely soul-crushing it is to put your sweat and tears into something and get absolutely no result? To just work and work but you fail anyways? It’s hideous. I feel so bad for her.”

We made an appointment to meet with her math teacher and begged him to be brutally honest. “She’s sitting at a 64%,” I wrote in the email. “Now is not the time for subtlety.”


Long story short, Miss D. began a new schedule this week. A schedule that includes grade-level math. There were tears–some out of frustration, some out of relief, some out of fear of change.

Not all of the tears were hers, either.

The ghosts rattle their chains and moan in my corners. My only hope is that those ghosts stay mine.


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Biz October 23, 2015 at 10:03 am

Ah, math was always my downfall too, although I wasn’t as bad as my sister was back then. Turns out she needed to get an A on her math final our senior year of high school to pass and graduate with our class, otherwise she’s have to go to summer school.

Being twins, and the fact that I had a study hall when she had math, thus I didn’t have a final at the same time, I took her final for her, got the A and then she didn’t have to go to summer school.

For YEARS my parents used that analogy with my sister if she was struggling with something. They’d say “remember that math final – you buckled down and pulled through and got that A!” We’d be kicking each other under the table. I think we finally told them when we were in our 30s that it was me that actually took the final! :D


Dana Talusani October 24, 2015 at 1:00 pm


Damn! I needed a twin sister! That would have helped so much! LOL.


Bonnie Hunter October 23, 2015 at 10:34 am

All I have to say is that another day has passed and I didn’t use calculus once!!



Jennifer October 23, 2015 at 11:10 am

I am/was the exact same way with math. It just goes right over my head. And I agree with you. There is nothing wrong with grade level math. She can always move up and do the harder stuff later if she makes that decision.


julie gardner October 23, 2015 at 1:48 pm

As a high school English teacher of 16 years (who taught every grade and every level from advanced to remedial) I applaud the decisions your family made along the way.

The three of you discussed options, tried everything, then dealt with the realities.

I hope you (all three of you!) can make peace with that in your hearts AND your brains.

Math was my Waterloo, too, although I took the route of giving up instead of giving it my all as you did. With your work ethic as role model, your support and flexibility buoying her, D will be just fine.

Better than fine. She will thrive knowing she’s loved, knowing you have her back.
No matter what.



Dana Talusani October 24, 2015 at 12:58 pm


I taught high school English, too. I actually think my math experiences made me a better teacher; I could truly empathize with the kids who had trouble understanding grammar and composition. So I guess it wasn’t all bad, right?


Annie October 23, 2015 at 1:49 pm

I really feel for her. Math was very much this way for me. In fact it seems what little I gained has steadily slipped away as the years go by. My girls are in need of someone else to help also when it comes time for math homework. I read an article a while back explaining why some brains are wired to go blank when tested for math. I’ll see if I can dig it up. It explained a lot for me.


Dana Talusani October 24, 2015 at 12:57 pm

Thanks, Annie! There is nothing worse than that “blank” feeling. Ugh!


Abbe @ This is How I Cook October 23, 2015 at 4:36 pm

Dana, I love the way you write. I had a math teachre in 6th grade that was Chinese. Truly I think she had just arrived and I couldn’t even understand her. It got worse after that. She may have your gift of language and that is a gift! I scraped by, and after my future husband taught me percentages, I felt comfortable shopping sales. That was enough math for me. Plus I’m really good at halving measurements in recipes and I can add like no one’s business!


Dana Talusani October 24, 2015 at 12:56 pm


Isn’t that funny–I don’t have trouble with numbers when I cook, either. I can also do simple percentages. But anything that isn’t practical, forget it!


GEW October 26, 2015 at 12:09 pm

I married an aerospace engineer who is now a math teacher. Thank Gawd!!!

Great post, Kitch.


Tiffany October 28, 2015 at 3:00 am

I’m available…any time thanks to FaceTime. Please ask…I’d love to help her. ❤️


Devon October 28, 2015 at 4:13 am

Math is an evil beast! I don’t even know your daughter and I am proud. A plus for perseverance in the face of a beast.


ginger rogers November 16, 2015 at 6:19 pm

If it were not for Mr. Anderson I would not have passed the ACT


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