I’ve mentioned before that I’m not exactly good at math, and if you’ve been reading here for a while you probably know I’m sometimes prone to over-exaggeration—although I swear to GOD the spider I found on our bathroom wall two nights ago was the size of a fucking Airstream, I actually saw visible biceps on each of its trillion horrifying legs—but I promise that my math deficiency is exactly as described, which is why I break out in a cold sweat when I hear the term “solve for X” (X? What? Now we’re involving letters? And all of a sudden this is a murder mystery and I have to be a detective and shit?).

It turns out that if you follow a career path that mostly has to do with words, you can get by with very few math skills. Sure, there will be the occasional moment when you’re having lunch with friends and the bill comes and you’ll have to throw yourself to the ground and fake a seizure to avoid enduring the humiliating public process of mentally calculating what you owe (pro tip: for authenticity, weakly push your wallet in someone’s direction and beg them to “just take some cash”, while simultaneously urinating in your pants), but overall I’ve had great success in avoiding math for many years now.

Let me clarify that it’s not that I hate math, although I certainly hated the busywork involved with it when I was a kid (I have particularly bad memories of endless chapters of long division problems, one after another, with the dreaded SHOW YOUR WORK command on every page); it’s really that I never learned math for shit. I barely know the basics, and anything approaching an algebraic concept has long been forgotten.

I have a long math-road ahead of me in school, obviously. I’ve thought about trying to self-learn enough to test into pre-algebra, but I think I’ll probably end up taking one of the “So You’re Kind of a Math Dipshit” courses that, on the flow chart of prerequisites, doesn’t even COUNT for anything other than allowing you entry into the next class, “So You’re An Average Math Dipshit, Unless You Don’t Know What ‘Average’ Means, In Which Case Go Take That Other Class Again For Chrissakes”.

I joke about this being one of the areas in which I am almost painfully stupid, but really, it’s never bothered me overmuch. Until last night, that is.

The nutrition class I’m taking (which is awesome, by the way, I’m really enjoying it so far. The instructor is a highly opinionated naturopathic doctor from Bastyr, so it’s interesting to get his take on things like the food pyramid [he hates it!], artificial sweeteners [you might as well be drinking DDT!], and anti-depressants [too many people are taking them! Try amino acid precursors first!]) has a weekly quiz, and we had our first one yesterday. I was buzzing through the answers, feeling good about how prepared I was, and then I got to this question:

Christopher’s lunch contains 121 grams of carbohydrates, 40 grams of protein, and 25 grams of fat. What percent of calories in this meal come from fat?

Uhhhhh. Uhhhhhhh.

Well, first of all, Christopher, that is a mighty big lunch you are eating, and I for one—

Okay wait, that’s not one of the answers. The answers are . . . oh hell, the answers are numbers. With one obnoxious “this answer is not possible to determine” choice just to fuck with me.

I got as far as I could, which was to multiply each nutrient count by their per-gram calorie count (4 for carbs and protein, 9 for fat, if you’re interested), then add the totals together, and then I had this to figure out:

What percent of 869 is 225?

And I had no. Idea. How to do that.

As it turned out, I was super lucky and of the answers provided I guessed the right one (26%), but damn, I felt like a total loser sitting there scribbling numbers on the test sheet, blowing eraser crumbs around, with absolutely no clue what I was doing. It doesn’t help that this class is made up of children, practically zygotes (no lie, I overheard one guy talking about the original Tron movie yesterday and he was all, “It’s not like I saw it when it came out, I mean, that was in the eighties“), and they’re all fresh from high school trig and biology and shit, and there I am in their midst, an aging sag-bellied mouthbreather lady who hasn’t been faced with a math question in FIFTEEN YEARS.

ANYWAY. So math. I need to work on that, sooner rather than later. Because goddamn, I am learning that I’m good at school now—like, for real, I’m a good student, you guys—and I want to ace this course despite the gaping numbers-shaped hole in my head.


78 Responses to “Solve for ACK”

  1. silene on April 14th, 2010 5:44 pm

    So…you may have already checked this out, BUT…I work at a place with a high percentage of returning adult learners, many of who are in the same situation as you re-math. Some commenters have mentioned paying for a tutor, which might be something to look into, but I wonder if there isn’t a free option? I mean, if you have to wait to get in to the remedial course until next term, you still want to ace *this* course.

    Anyway, my thought is–I’d be willing to bet your campus has a Math Lab somewhere, where you can get help for free (yay, free!). We have one, and it’s basically a drop-in center where students can stop by and work with peer tutors and/or faculty tutors, and that might be the thing to get you through until you can take some math courses.

  2. Tricia on April 14th, 2010 6:15 pm

    I don’t even know you, but we surely are kindred spirits.

  3. Meagan on April 14th, 2010 6:16 pm

    I have to admit, I find this kind of funny: from your description, it sounds like you actually knew EXACTLY what to do with the numbers. You managed to take a bunch of random figures thrown at you, and express them as a simple problem. Linda! That’s the hard part! You panicked once you got down to the real numbers, but solving the problem is realitively easy to learn so long as you understand the concept. And it sounds like you do, you’re just a bit afraid of MATH. All you need is practice.

    I do have some bad news though. Those pages of long division? That is NOT busy work. That IS the practice, which unfortunately, can be boring.

  4. Lesley on April 14th, 2010 6:17 pm

    What percent of 869 is 225?

    (225/869) X 100

    This is what Excel is for!

  5. MotherGooseAmy on April 14th, 2010 6:28 pm

    Just reading your post today made me break into a cold sweat. I agree. Letters belong in words, not in math. EEEKkkkk! Good luck!

  6. Danell on April 14th, 2010 6:32 pm

    Hey, I know ALL ABOUT not having a foundation in math. It started in second grade when I cheated on the multiplication table quizzes we had to take…so I was behind from the get-go.

    Anyway, jump ahead twenty years or so and I still ended up making it through LOTS of math classes that were either required for my undergrad major or were a prerequisite for vet school. And somewhere along the line, a lot of those science and math classes kind of all start intersecting-calculus and physics and chemistry…ugh.

    But really, just like we’re all saying: you can do it. Just keep pressing on. Anything important will stick.

  7. Linda on April 14th, 2010 11:43 pm

    Going back to School is such a brave step. There is nothing like challanging your self when life is already challenging on so many levels. I also have small kids (5,3 and 1),work full time and have a considerable commute. So I really applaude this decision to invest in your future. You are taking the steps to change an aspect of your life that you are not so happy with.

    Now about Math. I Love Math – I always have. There has always been a order and sense to it for me. Writing a paper for me has always been hell. All through College the classes with papers required were the ones that caused me to break into a cold sweat. I think the reason I like math is that I see how the pieces fit together. This is not some special gift however. I thnk I had the right teacher at the righ stage and then it just all built up from there. Now if I could just spell. Really I cant spell!!

    I really hope the math stuff doesn’t halt your goal.

  8. Meg on April 15th, 2010 6:04 am

    You poor bugger. I have to deal with percentages all the time, and it took me aaaaages to translate my half-assed vaguely remembered Maths knowledge from school into something I could actually *use* at this job.

    Fwiw I think you did a great job.

    With percentages, common sense is the most important thing in my opinion. When I see “what percentage is 225 of 869” my first thought is “it’ll be about a quarter i.e. 25%”. Because 225 and 869 are *about* 200 and 800, and that’s 25%, that’s easy.

    So when you do the problem, try it a couple different ways until you get an answer that’s about 25%. Common sense is a huge part of Maths. It’s really easy to forget whether it should be 225 divided by 869, x 100, or 869 divided by 225, x 100, but when you use common sense it kind of makes sense.

    I really admire what you’re doing, by the way, with all this studying and stuff.

  9. Jenine on April 15th, 2010 6:19 am

    Tutor! If I could go back and do college again (not my shining hour) I would hire tutors for everything but especially math. Everyone learns math differently and a tutor can teach specifically to your strengths and weaknesses. So find a friendly math geek — I know several — and pay for some very individual math instruction.

    By the way, you are brave and amazing.

  10. hydrogeek on April 15th, 2010 7:24 am

    A simple trick for percentages:
    Something IS some percent OF something.
    To make it an equation, IS means equals, and OF means times.
    So: Something = some percent X something. Replace the something’s and some’s with numbers or and X, and solve for X. Sounds like the solves for X thing is the next part to tackle. I’d second the idea of a tutor, unless you can learn via email, in which case you’re free to email me.
    (This may be my delurking comment. Am a math geek. I couldn’t help myself.)

  11. Andrea (@shutterbitch) on April 15th, 2010 7:34 am

    Math is like that cartoon snowball that starts small and grows and grows with downhill momentum. If you don’t get the little bit at the beginning, the big stuff will just run you over. My sister had a horrible teacher in 4th grade, right when they were learning fractions, long division, and stuff needed for future math classes. It’s only because her 5th grade teacher was an awesome math teacher that she managed to undo the damage done the previous year.

    Math is hard, but with a good beginning, it’s just another subject. I’m glad you’re looking at the remedial class as an option. That first bit is so important.

    Also, proud of you. You ARE a good student. I’m just glad that now you believe it.

  12. Andrea (@shutterbitch) on April 15th, 2010 7:37 am

    Also, the way I remember percentages is that they are always pieces of some whole. The bigger number is the whole, so that number is ‘heavier’ than the smaller number, so goes on the bottom of the divide line because it’s ‘more’. Therefore 869 is ‘heavier’ than 225, so to get the percentage, it’d be 225/869. I know others have chimed their tricks. I thought I’d add mine to see if it helped. (And yes, I’m an accountant, and assign ‘heavy’ to numbers to help me remember where they go. It’s sick actually.)

  13. Caroline on April 15th, 2010 9:26 am

    I’m a bit of a lurker but I love your blog. I’m an academic; I do both science and math, and I’d be happy to help with explanations or something, just write to me. Trust me, you are MORE than able to learn all the math you’ll need and it doesn’t have to be too hard. When you learn something (like this percentage thing), make up some more questions like the one you did, and solve them too. It’ll get to be second nature very soon.

  14. amber on April 15th, 2010 9:36 am

    I know exactly what you mean, EXACTLY. Especially the mouth-breathing part. I’ve always sucked at math, no matter how hard I tried (which granted was not very hard) and have hated it since they introduced 2+2. HATE. And as a writer, I find it obnoxious that they (math people) use letters in their equations. Letters belong to us, dammit.

  15. amber on April 15th, 2010 9:38 am

    And oh, I was placed in the dummy math course in college and the lady teaching the class said these words to us, on the first day: “I became a math teacher because I hated it, and I was horrible at it.”

    I am sooooo not kidding.

  16. Ali V on April 15th, 2010 10:00 am

    I never learned math basics either. I was in “gifted” classes and the idea seemed to be that we already knew all that stuff thru some sort of magical womb osmosis. My inability to understand basic math concepts like percentages and fractions made later coursework uniquely terrifying and difficult and I still suck at the most basic calculations. I had to ask my husband how to do the problem you posted, and he looked seriously taken aback that I didn’t know how to do it on my own. Damn engineers. Anyway, I say go for the remedial class. It can’t help but make later advanced coursework much less painful.

  17. Anonymous on April 15th, 2010 10:32 am

    I think you might find that you’re actually good at math once you’ve picked up the basics you missed. Because really you solved that problem perfectly … the last step of finding percents is trivial once you learnhowto do it.

  18. Sandi on April 15th, 2010 12:06 pm

    I failed algebra so many times in college that by the time graduation came, math was the only course i had left. I believe I failed it 5 times IN A ROW. soooo… don’t feel bad. math has been the death of me since I was a kid. It’s nice to see I am not alone.

  19. Hannah on April 15th, 2010 1:04 pm

    Hey, a resource that might be useful is Aardvark: http://vark.com/. it’s kind of like reverse Yahoo Answers. it’s not just geared towards math/technical questions, but a very large percentage of its users are computer/math nerds. i find it to be very useful for cases where i know *someone* knows the answer, but it’s not online anywhere.

  20. jolie on April 15th, 2010 2:49 pm

    I didn’t want to read through 68 comments to see if anyone else put this (I’m sure they have), but for some reason, the ONE THING I remember from math is this:

    Percent x Total = Part

    So if you want to find the percent, it would be:

    Percent = Part/Total

    I use this equation for sales, like when something is 35% off. I use my phone calculator ot do .35 x 60.00 = ? then i know how many bucks off I’m getting.

    Anyway. You’re not alone in hating math. I do know that statistically, students (and people) do better when they *think* they can do something. Weird but true, if stupid kids are told they are smart, they start acting smart. So don’t tell yourself that you suck at math. Believe that you can do it (because you can – you are smart and determined) and you will be great!

  21. Jen_Ann_W on April 15th, 2010 4:42 pm

    My husband is also a “non-traditional student” – aka an adult in a classroom of snot-nosed children (okay that was harsh, but it feels that way to him some days!). But he’s found that the main advantage is being on more equal footing with his professors. When he talks to them, asks for help and advice, or just chats about what he’s interested in learning, they’re much more receptive to him. He’s taking advantage of that, and also of the Math Lab and tutor program at the school. It’s really boosted his confidence – something that was lacking when he first started and felt like the old fart in the room.

  22. Kelly on April 16th, 2010 7:22 am

    College advisor here, and professional sucketh at any matheth dipshit (put THAT on my diploma!!). (I feel like I have to qualify my advice with that prelude for some reason.)

    For the love all that is holy, do NOT self prepare or whatever for the placement exam. Go forth blindly, I say! I have kids each day express anxiety about the long and windy road of math that you speak of, and why they can’t just “jump” into the “smart” math already. Nope. Wrong way to look at it, folks. I tell them this story: I took AP Calculus in high school. I don’t even know what the hell Calculus means now. I flunked out of College Algebra and Stats TWICE. If only I’d been advised to take the prep courses…if only. I would’ve saved myself several semesters of retaking math courses, buying new editions of the book, etc.

    I know you might feel like you’re “behind”, but what’s a thousand times worse is being in a math course that’s beyond your knowledge, and having sweaty palmed anxiety attacks before each class and test (that was me). You want to nail the hell out of math. Make math your bitch. If you ever want to get a higher level degree in Nutrition (or a related science field), they may pull out certain courses (math, sciences (like Anatomy and Phys, etc) to obtain a “program GPA” to assess your competitiveness for their program. You NEED that to be high.

    Go on with your remedial math taking self!

  23. Shawna on April 16th, 2010 1:00 pm

    Divide the smaller number by the bigger number and multiply by 100.

  24. Jess on April 16th, 2010 11:53 pm

    As a grad student who is currently drowning in the econometrics of Public Policy (don’t ask, cuz I have no idea how I got here from Oooh I want to work with cities!) I say go with the basic math. Understanding how it actually works is so much more valuable than just getting a passing grade in a class. I did that all through high school (in the advanced classes no less) and then had to take three remedial math courses in Jr. Col. because I had no idea about what I was actually doing.

    And if it helps at all, lots of those kids straight out of high school math classes are in no better shape. Public education is abysmal, and far too many students learn early on that asking questions = stupid. No good, that. And when you’re neck deep in regression analysis the last year of your masters, you’ll be glad you can recognize a quadratic equation at a glance because you took those remedial classes. I can guarantee it!

  25. Bianca on April 17th, 2010 9:01 am

    Oh, Linda. If you never really received a foundation in math then it makes PERFECT sense why you would fear it.

    Here’s something I tell all my girlfriend’s -if you fear math and you walk around hating it, then it WILL be difficult. Learning math, like learning a new language (like learning almost anything new in life) requires one big essential ingredient that folks forget to mention -belief in yourself.

    And, pardon me for getting all WOMYN’S LIB on you but (while there are some basic) biological explanations for why women tend to be worse/fear/hate math, a lot of this is, sadly, conditioning from a very young age. So know that a large part of this is not your fault. Our culture doesn’t emphasize math skills for women as much as others do.

    The remedial classes will help -I agree, but again, a very important thing to remember is that your math ability will be affected by your thoughts and what you project.

    I’m seeing some people here right out these long equations and I KNOW how intimidating (and even ridiculous) they’re attempts at simplicity may see for you. When you don’t have a foundation -it’s all greek.

    A basic, that you probably already know, but bear with me:

    To get 50% of a number, divide it by 2.

    100/2=50 (50 is 50% of 100)

    250/2=125 (125 is 50% of 100)

    If you can get this far, you’re off to a good start.

    Percentages can be easy to estimate this way. With a little work you can guess what half of 869 is? (869/2) About 430something, right?

    Guess what? You now know that 430something is 50% of 869.

    With a little more work, what’s half of 430something…about 215?

    Well, now you know what about 25% of 869 is.

    You’ll do fine. Just start practicing a little when you can and you’ll get better. Don’t forget to acknowledge when you’re using math and when you’re right, it’ll help build your self-esteem. :)

  26. veralynn on April 17th, 2010 9:36 am

    I definitely recommend taking the course instead of trying to refresh yourself. I tried that route when I just couldn’t work the course into my schedule and oh lordy, it was one of the most painfully obnoxious times of my life. It’s totally worth paying someone to hold your hand and walk you through it.

  27. MyFrogs on April 20th, 2010 8:10 am

    I’m not good at math either. Just wait til your 4th grader needs help on fractions and you have NO clue! Or you have to google how to divide a decimal to help your 5th grader! I’m in big trouble here soon!

  28. Kym on April 21st, 2010 6:12 pm

    Math sucks ass!

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