Why explaining the Binomial Theorem to a fellow student is a big deal (to me)


Today I explained the Binomial Theorem to another dude in my discrete math class.

“Who cares?” You’re probably saying.

Well, let me tell you a little story.

I used to be good at math. Like, when I was a kid. In elementary school I was one of three kids who were in “advanced math” (we sat in a broom closet and did math out of junior high textbooks. We also gave each other really dorky math nicknames, but I can’t remember mine).

I wasn’t bad through Junior High, either. The only difference was that I’d hit the “who gives a crap about school” phase of my life, so I didn’t really try very hard.

But then I took Algebra II. And I had the worst  teacher ever. He was the track coach, so he was really only teaching so he could stay the track coach. He’d stand in front of the class for about 10 minutes, write out a bunch of equations and graphs without explaining them (seriously), then go back to his desk and review track film for the rest of the period. We were to spend the rest of the time doing a bunch of questions from the book, and he would get visibly irritated if we came up to him to ask questions.

I’m not even kidding.

What’s worse is how stupid he made us all feel when we did ask questions. And algebra’s never been my strength anyway (geometry and calc FTW), so you can imagine the number of berating comments I got because I always had questions. And me being me, I associated the “you’re so stupid” feeling with math, and that quickly turned into “you can’t do math you idiot.”

I’ll spare you all the crappy details, but by about January that year I would literally break out in hives whenever I walked down the math wing of the high school. I managed to stick it out, though, and ended up with like a 69.97%, which turned out as a C minus on my report card. And if you know me, you know that’s HORRIBLE. Even in my “I don’t give a crap about school” phase I didn’t get C minuses in any of my other classes.

The “Claudia’s too dumb to do math” attitude lasted into college as I took Math 143 in fall 2006 (though I submit that class was just a horrible class in general) and had like 40 panic attacks over Math 160 (“Survey of Calculus,” kind of an abridged version of calc I with a lot less integration) in fall 2007. I didn’t hate math—I appreciated everything it gave us and the amazing applications—I just hated doing it. (Which is actually kind of funny, because I NEVER felt like that when I started taking statistics. But I see stats and math as very different topics. But that’s another topic for another blog, so moving on…)

Once I got far enough along in the field of stats, I obviously started doing things that involved a lot more advanced math than anything I’d ever dealt with before (e.g., calculating eigenvalues and eigenvectors in factor analysis). And I think at some point I realized that if I was ever going to get anywhere in stats, I might as well stop being an idiot, face my fear of not being good at math (yes, it’s a fear of not being good at math, not a fear of math), and take some freaking math classes

And so that’s my life right now.

Every once and awhile, especially if I see a problem that I have no idea how to solve, I still get this incredibly visceral feeling of fear and dread and despair and self-hatred over being too stupid to do anything of worth, but I try to fight it and stay calm (well, calm for me).

But yeah. I’m absolutely loving my math classes and I’m really excited to get to Math 451 and 452, the two “Mathematical Statistics” classes, because I’m anticipating some big “click” where the two subjects merge into some beautiful orgy of integrals and probability distributions (and when that happens, good luck seeing a blog about anything else).

Anyway.

I just thought I’d explain that a little bit and give you a reason why you’re seeing a lot of “Claudia spazzes about math” posts.

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