Learning How to Learn

My daughter is studying for her SAT—her college admissions test. I never took the SAT because I got a D in Algebra in high school, twice. I took the class again, to advance to geometry, but got the same grade, forced to take it from the same teacher that didn’t explain anything the first time. No, it isn’t “just the way it is,” Mr. Mulvaney. Even algebra has a reason for why it works the way it does.

I didn’t take the SAT because I was afraid I’d fail it with no math background. In fact, every time I even thought of math, I felt anxious. I was a failure, stupid if I didn’t get it, as most of my classmates seemed to. I couldn’t apply to a California university, or any four year college worth attending without taking the SAT. Instead, I attended Jr College for two years before transferring over to CSUN. I studiously avoided math classes, as they were not required after high school.

Fast forward 5 years, and I want to apply to graduate school to study Education. Not only will I have to take GRE, which will have math, but before that, to apply to the best colleges, I have to have teaching experience, in a real classroom, which will require I pass the CBEST, which has math. Panic. How was I supposed to pass any standardized test when I never passed algebra, and never advanced to higher levels of math that was sure to be on these tests?

Enter my friend, Bert. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll teach you algebra, and geometry, and any other basic math you need. You’ll pass the tests.”

He had to be kidding. “I failed algebra twice! I’ll never be able to learn all the math I need to pass these tests.”

“Don’t be absurd. You are one of the smartest people I know. Of course you can learn math.”

The familiar terror was choking. Did he not hear me. I FAILED IT TWICE, and never advanced. I’m just not a math person. “I suck at math!”

“Not likely,” he said with confidence. “More likely, you got turned off of it by some careless teacher, and the gates in your brain shut down. All you need to do is get out of your own way. Open your brain back up, so you can learn what you need to know.”

“I’m an artist, a qualitative person, not quantitative. I hate math.” I was trying not to kill his delusion that I was smart.

“But you need to know it to pass these tests, to do what you want with your life. You have some worthy goals. Make them happen. I’ll help you.”

I didn’t want his help. I didn’t want to learn math, or, more likely not learn math, prove to him, and myself, how stupid I really was. He was being so kind it was impossible to keep defending myself. But I still did not believe him. I knew I wasn’t smart enough for advanced math.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, when I didn’t jump at his offer. “Remember the show Get Smart?”

Ok…“Yeah.”

“Remember the opening? Max enters that hallway with the thick metal doors that slide open one by one as he approaches them. And each slams shut behind him as he walks down the hall?

“Yeah.”

“Well, that’s what your brain is doing when you think of math. The doors, or gates to learning are shutting down in your head. You are so freaked out because some lazy teacher made you feel stupid, and you bought it, hook, line and sinker. Stop it! You’ll make a great teacher, or professor, or whatever you want to do with education. Learn math, and move forward.”

“You make it sound simple.”

“But it is. You just have to open the gates in your brain that make it possible to learn, well, anything.” He smiled. I did too, couldn’t help it. With his words, he’d just introduced hope.

We were sitting at Jerry’s Deli, in L.A., at the time. Bert takes the pen the waiter left to sign for our bill, and an unused napkin, and writes out a quadratic equation. I frowned, felt anxious. Here we go. Now he’ll see how stupid I really am.

“I can see by your face, you’re already freaking out.” He laughed. I scoffed. “This is good!” He was clearly excited. I felt pissed off, embarrassed. “Let’s explore that feeling. Talk to me about it, what does it feel like?”

“I feel scared, and stupid.”

“That’s your first two gates. Big, thick, metal doors shutting you out of learning. So, let’s start with feeling stupid, because that’s likely why you’re feeling scared, that I’ll see you, or you’ll see yourself, as stupid.”

“OK…”

“Do you think you’re stupid?”

“With math!”

“Our brains don’t work that way. You can’t just be stupid in one area. Either you have a functioning brain, or you don’t. Most of us have functioning brains. Are you telling me you don’t believe you do?”

I thought about that. Of course I have a functioning brain. I graduated college. I got good grades, even in high school, except for math. “I have an OK brain, I guess.”

He laughed. “So, there goes your first gate. Poof! It’s gone. It was bullshit anyway. Good riddance. Every time you think of math, or we work on equations, notice how you feel. Pay attention to how your brain is operating. Examine the messaging it’s feeding you, and the bullshit it’s telling you. Qualitatively break it down to check if it’s right. Every time your brain says, “I can’t do this. I’m not smart enough,” call BULLSHIT. YES, I AM SMART ENOUGH! Then go back to the problem, and work at figuring it out.” He took a sip of his tea, and smiled at me. “Work at it long enough, and hard enough, and you will.”

The gates in my brain…I could literally feel them all of a sudden. Bert was right. Every time I even thought of math the gates in my brain shut down. And not only with math. Every single time I found it hard to learn something, anything, I now could see it was me, getting in my own way, allowing my brain to convince me of bullshit. All I had to do was examine my own feeling more carefully, embrace the ones that supported my success, and reject those that didn’t.

I learned algebra and geometry in a three week refresher course offered through the CBEST testing program. I passed the test, and subsequently my GRE, and though I never followed through with my graduate degree in education, as my career, and having kids became my priority, I now teach at some of the top universities on the planet.

I now know, with enough hard work, I can learn, well, anything.