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Math is Hard. So is Childhood Trauma.

I’m horrible at math. That’s what I’ve told myself for the past 30+ years. I didn’t realize my challenge has more to do with childhood trauma than arithmetic.

HOOORRRRRRIIIIIIBBBBBBLLLLLLE at it.

Anxiety would develop at the idea of having to take a math course or calculate something difficult. That’s why I put off math the first time I returned to college. I chose a degree based on what required the least math. It’s also what prevented my return to school for nearly 20 years.

Seriously, it’s bad.

I made the choice to go back, but guess the first class I HAD to take.

Uh huh. A math.

Not gonna lie, the first week kicked my butt. I was in tears while watching endless YouTube videos learning functions I had never heard of or seen before. That was just to figure out how to put the equation into the calculator.

I didn’t understand why it had to be so hard for me. But, I didn’t want my anxiety and self-doubt to ruin the opportunity though. I started thinking about why math had become so hard. If I could understand my disconnect, it might get fixed. I also thought about why it had been so hard in the past.

Sometimes, forcing myself to look objectively at a situation results in a paradigm shift. Oftentimes, it also means looking at more of the childhood trauma I experienced.

RECOGNIZING TRAUMA

Over three decades ago, in the 7th grade, I had a math teacher who scared a lot of people. I had done okay with math prior but my biggest obstacle was “showing my work.” Often, I couldn’t explain how I got from A to B. The steps were in my head. It wasn’t that I was smarter than others, just that my brain worked differently. She recognized my challenge.

Then, she took time to teach me how to learn differently. It wasn’t about teaching me new math. Instead, she taught me how to process the math. One day she stopped me after class. As she opened her lesson plan, she said “Copy down the assignments. You can work as far ahead as you feel comfortable.”

By the beginning of the spring semester, I was months ahead of the rest of the class. It was a challenge, but one that kept my mind busy. Each equation was a puzzle to solve. My world would soon change.

Over the next four months, in addition to the abuse already present, I experienced the deaths of three people close to me (my mom being one of them) and endured two rapes. School was no longer a priority.

WARNING SIGNS

I became withdrawn and rarely went to school. I fell behind but didn’t care. The only thing I cared about was sleep.

What should have been warning signs for depression brought on by childhood trauma were accusations of being lazy. What should have been an alarm to get me help was another neglected need. By the end of the year, I barely passed most of my classes.

I picked up my class schedule for the 8th grade and thought there was a mistake. It said Honors Math. I went to the office expecting a new schedule. Instead, the secretary said “No, this is correct. There’s a recommendation for Honors by your Math teacher.”

She had never said a word to me about it, never scolded me for dozing off in class. She never made me feel bad for doing poorly on a test. She took time to see beyond my grades. She may have not known every detail, but she read me well enough to know something wasn’t right. Then she silently pushed me towards another challenge.

Unfortunately, turmoil at home, moves, stress and undiagnosed depression were about to come crumbling down. Again, I ended the school year barely passing my classes and with a C in math. It would be the last time I felt confident in the subject.

My dad said I was stupid, and my grades reflected his assessment.

CHANGES AND CONFUSION

9th grade meant Algebra I. Abuse and dynamics at home had shifted and I started the year living with other family members. I had an “A” when my dad decided it was time for me to live with him and his new wife.

Nine weeks into the semester, I changed schools and was placed in an Algebra class with an instructor who had started teaching material differently than I had experienced. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t keep up and was lost. It was hard to know where to even start asking questions. Coupled with issues at home, it was a nightmare.

I flunked.

I went to summer school where I scraped by with a mere D. The minimum required. I struggled for the next two years. Geometry in 10th, Algebra II in 11th. I didn’t bother to take a math my senior year.

It wasn’t worth the effort. I was horrible at math. At least that’s what I had started telling myself.

By the time I went to college the first time, I hadn’t looked at an equation in almost two years. I had no foundation of skills needed for College Algebra. Still, my advisor put me in a 7:30am class three days a week.

I might could have caught up. I’m sure there was tutoring on campus or I could have asked for extra help from my instructor but I didn’t. I didn’t because I had partial scholarships and grants but was still responsible for paying for my dorm and meal plan.

I had four other classes, a part-time work-study job and did an 8-hour shift from 11pm to 7am 4 nights a week at a Tyson plant making flour tortillas.

STRESS

Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I went to class from 7:30 to 11am. Work-study on campus from 11:30am until 1:30. I’d grab lunch, head back to the dorm by 2 for homework and sleep then, back to work at the plant by 11. That was my experience for the first semester of college, but I was horrible at math. And because I was horrible at math, I flunked. Again.

I flunked and didn’t go back to school for nearly 10 years. It was about more than not wanting to take math. I thought I wasn’t college material because I was stupid at everything and had given up on myself.

I never once stopped to realize I had mentally checked out of math in the 7th grade. It wasn’t because I was bad at it. It was because of trauma. I wasn’t mentally stable enough to be successful at the time. I needed help I didn’t get.

8th grade was influenced by abuse and instability. It made productivity impossible. It also hindered my learning groundwork on which my next three years would build on. In 9th grade, I moved at a pivotal time. I was left behind as the least common denominator in the class, with no hope of catching up to where I needed to be.

Taking a two-year break from math before college further fueled the implosion yet to come.

TIME

Now, 20 years later, I paused to look back over the past week of class. I’ve taught myself basic calculus in 11 days. It wasn’t entirely along. I have an amazing husband and daughter who were able to explain steps to me. I also have the blessing of an awesome instructor. Now that I’m, somewhat, caught up with the rest of the class, lessons are easier for me to understand. She’s making her dedication to students’ success clear. I’m taking advantage of it too.

The point is, I’m not horrible at math. I just didn’t recognize outside factors (childhood trauma) that profoundly impacted how well I performed academically. Those factors are gone. I have a fresh start.

I share this because I want to encourage others who may be doing the same thing I did.

SELF-CHECK

Take time to step back. Something else may have complicated the issue. 

What have you wrongly convinced yourself of (without considering the full scope of why you struggle with something in your life)?

Questions to consider:

When did ___________start?

What else was going on at the time?     

What other situations seemed to reinforce how I think about __________?

Is my attitude about _________ mine, or the way others made me feel?

What can I do today to would improve how I feel about _______________?

If you, or someone you know has experienced childhood trauma, resources are available. Don’t wait to get help. There are also resources for families and caregivers of those who have experienced childhood trauma.

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