Like many, I’ve long held the belief I’m “bad at math,” but as the spring semester at Rock Valley College winds down, I’ve learned this isn’t true.

In 5th grade, I tested into the gifted program in the Rockford Public School District. I jumped from standard 4th grade classes to advanced 5th grade classes. Given the shoddy state of Rockford’s standard curriculum in the late Eighties/ early Nineties, it’s no surprise I struggled, especially in mathematics. My gifted program teachers taught as though I had been in the program from kindergarten (as most of the students had been). My troubles at home, which manifested as poor behavior at school, didn’t motivate my teachers to give me extra help, I’m sure. After a rough 5th grade, I returned to standard classes in 6th grade. The result of this ping-ponging between curricula was a severe deficiency in basic arithmetic skills.

Fast-forward three years, when I was enrolled in the Academy, RPS’s gifted program for high schoolers. Still behind in math, I failed my college algebra course the first time around and barely passed geometry. My senior year, I dropped out of my advanced math class (trigonometry, if I recall) rather than face another two semesters of brutality. I hated math.

In 1999, when I took the entrance exams at Rock Valley, I scored less than 50% on the math portion (shocked, I’m sure you are), earning me the privilege of several remedial courses, including geometry. This semester, I’m completing a “super course,” which tackles all of those remedial classes in one semester, save geometry. I have a 91% in the class right now, and finals are in two weeks. On a lark, I retook the geometry portion of the placement test, and scored an 80%: enough to skip the required remedial class. I have one college-level math class to take – scheduled for next semester – before I graduate with my A.A.

What I have learned in this semester at RVC is that I’m not bad at math; I’m bad at arithmetic. I have little difficulty understanding algebraic concepts. Where I struggle is with simple multiplication and division, managing fractions, and the like. My difficulties stem almost entirely from the learning I missed back in 5th and 6th grades. From these deficiencies flow frustration with myself and feelings of stupidity. But I can’t help also feeling proud I’ve been able to overcome some of my limitations (thanks to help from Texas Instruments) and score an A in a class I was convinced I would barely pass, if at all.

It’s perhaps a bit strong to say I “love the maths,” but I do have a new-found appreciation for them, especially algebra. There are theories in math to be sure: ideas unproven because we can’t test every possible case, but for the most part, algebra is fundamental, truthful. Race, religion, political affiliation: these don’t matter to algebra. y does, in fact, equal mx+b.