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Why your children will thank you one day if you persuade them to stick it out.


Why your children will thank you one day if you persuade them to stick it out.

By LD Lewis  

I remember sitting next to my Dad at eight years old as he did his Calculus homework from college. It was a strange language of symbols and numbers he grappled with, yet they spoke to him. He used a slide rule to calculate, and the process fascinated me. I knew that to be able to do math, a subject so many remain terrified of, allowed one to be considered intelligent. I wanted to be smart, though as the math got harder, I started losing my fascination with it. It didn't come easily to me.  


  Until my junior year in high school, my whining about math aligned with my peers':   "But it's too hard!"  "I'm no good at math!"  "What am I going to use this stuff for anyway, Dad?"   Given my initial math aversion, my appreciation for it today is amazing. If I can come to love math, anyone can. Given this, I decided to write this article for parents and teachers everywhere struggling to get their children or students to do their homework on the subject. Perhaps my story about the gifts a strong mathematics education gives can inspire a few to give math a chance.   


  In grade school during the 1970s, the method for teaching math was known as "new math." To this day, I have no idea what that means. At the time, new math involved recommended study tracks. You were either assigned the science and technology track or the language and liberal arts track.    By 1978, women's liberation effectively opened doors for girls shut just two decades prior, but school districts still needed to catch up. By the ninth grade, I had finished the math track for students like me. Though I always knew I'd go to college, the school district determined via my aptitude tests I would likely not. To this day, it amazes me because I maintained an A- to B+ GPA and rarely took fluff courses. School was for remedial learning in my family. It was not for learning skills we could acquire at home, through books, or with private instruction.   


  What channeled me were my language skills and gender. The school district determined most girls in the late 1970s and early 1980s didn't need the scientific math of geometry, trigonometry, and pre-calculus, which are essential for scientific careers and advanced placement courses. We were encouraged to take typing, home economics, and language courses, which I did take but considered dull. My classmates on the same track ended their mathematics training at Algebra One and could spend the rest of their high school years taking easy classes without math. Not me.   My father, an engineer by now, would have none of that. To my initial horror, his daughter would not graduate from high school without trigonometry and geometry. He took on the school district and won, forcing them to allow me to take the scientific math and college prep courses. To make matters worse, though calculators were available at the time and had come down in price, Dad only allowed me to use one once I hit Algebra Two and then only on tests. At the time, I resented him for that. Algebra Two was my first college course after high school!  


  The first time I developed an appreciation for my most challenging subject came during my junior year as a Rotary International Exchange Student in Brazil from 1982-1983. When I arrived, I didn't speak a word of Portuguese. I started school after four weeks in the country, and like all the other students in my class, I, too, was expected to pass with no consideration given to my lack of understanding of Portuguese. To add to the challenge, nobody spoke English at all. There were 100,000 people in Marilia, and over a year, I found two who spoke English fluently. One was my English teacher at school.   In Brazilian high school, we had 13 courses per semester, and the professors changed classes as the students stayed put. My curriculum included Geometry, Trigonometry, Algebra, Optical Physics, Mechanical Physics, Organic Chemistry, General Chemistry and General Physics. These math-based courses became my friends.    We also had Portuguese, Brazilian History, Geography, Biology and English. Being a typical know-it-all teenager, I eventually was kicked out of English for correcting the teacher one too many times. As an adult who teaches English as a second language, I now understand she taught British English. Though I usually do well in History, Writing, and Geography courses, despite speaking Portuguese fluently within six months, my reading comprehension and writing skills in my new language needed work. Math provided common ground. (Yes, that is me in the cover image at age 16.)  


  America experienced an influx of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees during the late 1970s and early 1980s. We saw these kids as brains as junior high and high school students. They took to Math and Science with a veracity none of us could understand. And they kept throwing the grading curve out of whack, which was annoying! In Brazil, I suddenly understood why.    Math and Science are languages. Their symbols, procedures, and sentence structure are universal. During my first few months of school, I couldn't speak Portuguese, but I could speak Math and Science. Both allowed me to focus on something. I was no longer helpless. In these classes, I could participate, and because of this, I worked even harder. Instead of sitting alone and feeling left out, I could jump to the board and solve a problem. While doing so, I learned to understand Portuguese quickly.  


  My subsequent appreciation for this challenging subject came in college. Fortune smiled at me as, in my sophomore year, I took Pre-calculus, Calculus 101, and Calculus 201, all from the same teacher, Professor Killingstadt. Each morning of my sophomore year, I got up at 3:30 AM and arrived at about 4:15 AM at our local 24-hour coffee shop, where I ate breakfast, drank a lot of coffee, and did my homework until 7:45 AM. By 8 AM, I was at work until 5 PM, and my classes ran from 5:30 PM to 10 PM.    Looking back, I don't know how I did it—a morning person I am not. Yet Killingstadt encouraged me, and I was determined to get it. I could have been a better math student and mainly received B's, but those B's meant more to me than the A's I got in History, Speech, or English, where I rarely studied or even showed up for class. I earned those B's and eventually tutored through Calculus in my junior and senior years to earn money. My crowning achievement involved proving the quadratic equation on ten notebook pages. Doing so left me feeling like a genius for the rest of the day.   However, I did encounter some hurdles. After acing Accounting and then Business Calculus without attending class (I had taken the full course of Engineering Calculus already), I took Statistics. Upon glancing at the equations in the book, I decided that, like Business Calculus, I didn't need to attend class. Statistics is the only class I ever failed, and I had to retake it with my tail between my legs. Different types of math have different rules. It was a humbling experience and a hard-learned lesson about following directions.  


  Why so much math for a business major? My Dad had another rule besides no calculators. While in college, I had to take a Math or Science course every quarter until I graduated with my Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. In retrospect, it is impressive that I followed his requirements. He didn't pay for college. I worked my way through without financial aid and only $1800 in student loans. I've always had difficulty saying no to Dad, so I followed his requirements, even though it was on my dime. Why? Math gives gifts few other subjects bestow, and it is these gifts that have allowed me to succeed.   


  Math is the ultimate creativity engine. It teaches that any problem can be solved in multiple ways and arrive at the same conclusion. Once this is understood, critical thinking becomes a habit. No longer is there just one side to a story. Math teaches there are many paths leading to a solution. It forces us to look for alternatives. Understanding its logic opens new avenues of education.   


  Math gives confidence. With so many in our population unable to make change without requiring a register, calculator, or phone to provide the total, those with the skills advance more quickly and are intimidated by fewer circumstances.  


  A strong mathematics education provides courage. When we conquer our fears and overcome them, new opportunities open up. Absent a fear of math, I tackled computers and self-taught myself everything from programming to design. My first company would not have existed if I had not overcome my fear of math. To create it, I learned coding and multiple software programs. I designed the databases, billing systems, marketing, accounting, polls, forms, and club management systems, all based on mathematics from accounting to statistical analysis and database management. LEEP Calendar, my second company, would not exist if I hadn't conquered my fear of math and embraced it.  


  Without mathematics and understanding processes and procedures, data is just data. To understand it, one must know what to ask and how to create the formulas that deliver the answers. Data is only helpful with advanced Algebra and basic algorithms, and businesses miss opportunities. The real world is a never-ending story problem with real dollars attached: "Chuck drives five miles east at 60 miles an hour; how much gas will he use if his Corvette gets eight miles per gallon? How much will the trip cost on a per-mile basis?" If Chuck delivers your product, you better know the cost, or it will eat your profit!   


  Today, I see math's value, whether as a window into another culture or an ace up my sleeve during contract negotiations. In politics, negotiation, or debate, adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, or converting percentages in your head is invaluable for exposing inconsistencies in arguments, junk science, or signaling the necessity to think critically and question past what is presented.   Though Dad's refusal to allow calculators gave me ammunition for teen angst, Dad did know best. My math education is one instance where his wisdom paid handsomely. By learning how to do the math on paper or in my head faster than most people can with calculators, I've saved myself over $6,000 in overcharges at checkouts. I can quickly negotiate contract terms, saving myself another $200,000 in concessions over the years.    The moral of the story? Learning math pays. It pays very well.    A version of this article originally appeared on Couples Company in 2004. It has been updated in 2024.

Last updated: Feb 13th 2024

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