Me My Life

My Mathematical Mind

Have you seen the “things I’m afraid to tell you” meme going around? Well, here’s my take on it. I’ve mentioned my love of math before, but here is the full scope.

I’m smart. It’s not something that one brings up often, and especially not me. When I was a little girl, my father got annoyed with me one day because I had corrected something his friend said, and he told me to keep quiet and stop showing off. That offhand comment stuck with me and made me equate letting people see that I have a brain with bragging, so I hid my intellect.

But yes, I’m smart. Really smart. But I never wanted to be some kind of genius that can manipulate numbers and solve equations, no. I wanted to be well-read with excellent verbal skills. I wanted to be an author or a poet, or maybe an artist, but nothing that involved math. I was disappointed every time if my scores were higher on standardized tests in math instead of verbal, even when I did exceedingly well across the board. I was the geeky girl in high school that custom programmed my TI-89 graphing calculator to make vector-based art that was dependent on the variables you would enter into an equation I wrote… and I thought I didn’t like math. I know how to code and design websites (ahem) today because I’ve been coding since I was 13 for fun. I’m good at a wide variety of things (Jill of all trades, master of none), but foremost I’m mathy, and it took me a long time to accept that about myself.

I got a little lost in these fun videos by Vi Hart the other night. If you are at all curious about what it’s like to be inside my brain, the frenetic pace and mathematical tangents in the video below are a good start to understanding my thought processes. I especially enjoyed the little aside in the video about the parallels between art and math, and the cute take on calculus leaping from algebra’s limitations. It took calculus to make me really fall in love with math. (Everything leads up to it and culminates and is beautiful.)

My mom recently went back to school for her teaching certificate. As part of her studies, she had been looking into the varying degrees of giftedness in children that weren’t as well defined when I was in elementary school, so we’ve been talking about how schools treat gifted kids and I’ve been thinking about my experiences in the classroom lately. I was a model student when I was young. I skipped ahead in subjects to move up to the next grade level, and even then it was all too easy. But then something happened when I hit junior high, and I became a terrible student. I don’t think anything changed in me, but rather the teaching methods and expectations were different.

I would do my homework and then leave it in my locker, forgetting to bring it with me to turn it in, but then I’d ace every test and make up for it. I figured the work wasn’t as important as the mastery of the subject; my teachers did not see it that way. I failed a semester of English AP in my junior year and had to make it up my senior year in a remedial class where the teacher referred to me as “La Femme Nikita” (inappropriate!) and we read books written for fourth graders. I made it through my senior English AP class because my essays were weighed heavily and they saved my overall grade. I missed weeks of school due to an illness one year, and missed all of trigonometry, so I bought a book and taught it to myself when I later needed it to progress on in other math disciplines.

I only have an A.A. from a community college. It’s an accomplishment, and one that I should be proud of, but I’m embarrassed because I feel like I never fulfilled my potential. I had partial scholarship offers from Ivy League schools, based on my PSAT scores, but I never would have been accepted due to my low GPA. I wanted to go to Reed, but we couldn’t afford it and my parents were convinced I would flunk out of college anyway, so I was encouraged to not bother. I floundered in community college at first (I hated it and resented being there), and it took me years of going to school off and on (while working full-time at the bookstore where I met Brandon) to get my two-year degree. It was easy to ace my classes once I’d finally decided to and I would have continued on to architecture school, but I wasn’t accepted into the college of my choice (low high school grades, remember), so I gave up and started my my stationery shop instead.

I was feeling a bit down on myself recently while thinking about all of this. Had I been able to make my grades reflect my intellect, I could have gone to any school I wanted, been anything I wanted to be. I love that I’ve been able to create this job for myself, this funny “professional blogger” gig that I never could have predicted or aimed for, but it’s not like it pays that well and it would be nice to not have to worry about money, especially right now.

Still, I don’t think I could have made myself behave any differently. I am inherently the absent-minded professor; the classic INTP, with a dash of creativity thrown in for good measure. I’ve been that way for as long as I can remember, but I know how to make it work for myself now.

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  • Reply
    May 7, 2012 at 9:24 am

    Hey There,
    Long time lurker, and a college professor. Just wanted to say– it’s not too late. One of my best undergraduate students this year is your age– she is graduating with honors and heading off to graduate school, where I know she will excel. I myself dropped out of college a couple of times before finally plugging in and finishing my doctorate (which I did with kids, too– it can be done.) You have Ivy League-quality schools in your backyard (UofC, NWestern). Schools these days are very understanding of and receptive to “resumer” students, particularly those who are as gifted as you say you are. My college actually has substantial scholarships to entice that population onto campus. Just pointing this out. It’s easy to look back and say “what if”, but the book isn’t closed on your life. You can still write it. Good luck!

  • Reply
    May 7, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    This was fascinating! I’m an INFJ, so it was interesting to see what I might be like if I tended toward Thinking and Perceiving.

    I also felt like being smart was something I should hide, or downplay, starting in middle school. I also got good grades in school based on tests but didn’t absorb as much as I should – and I wonder what might have been if I had known what I could aim for. However, I don’t regret any choices I made, as they led me to the life I have now, which I love. My husband and I want to travel with our kids to help them think outside the little bubble they live in now, and possibly imagine a life they could create for themselves. I think having a foreseeable goal might give them confidence and guidance.

    Also, have you heard of Kahn Academy? You can take free classes in many subjects – lots of math options! What a fun way to exercise your gifts – who knows what else you might do with it one day!

  • Reply
    Amy Awesome
    May 7, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    Dude, I get this 100%. I could have written the vast majority of this minus the coding for fun part, I never had a computer until I was an adult and by that point I was too lazy to learn.) However I don’t even have an associates degree. I had 3 semesters of college and then “took a hiatus” which has yet to end. oops! I remember my advisor trying to push me into engineering telling me that most of the people currently in the program would kill for my math skills, but it just wasn’t for me.

  • Reply
    May 8, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Wow. I related to so much of this all the way through (minus the biggest thread— math is not my thing). I was constantly forgetting my homework in school and terrible with all of the routine stuff but then would redeem myself with essays and test scores, etc. ” bright girl… Needs to work on organization” was all over my report cards growing up. I had also just read your post about leaving clutter in plain sight but drawers and closets MUST be organized and I thought— man, Nicole is totally on my wavelength recently… Come to find out, you’re an INTP, just like me! Ha. I also live in OP and recognize all the pics from your walk. I wanted to move here since I was in high school. ;) great minds…..

  • Reply
    May 11, 2012 at 11:01 am

    This is clearly an epidemic – highly intelligent girls convinced that downplaying our brilliance will somehow benefit us socially. Middle school was definitely my turning point, as well. If I am able to convince my own daughter that using the full potential of her amazing brain is paramount to everything in life, I will consider myself a success as a mother. Maybe ours will be the generation to move beyond this stigma?

  • Reply
    Alisa from California
    May 12, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    (That’s my new name, above, lol, since I post on here all the time)

    I read this, and didn’t know how to feel at first, but as I read on, I realized that everywhere there was an “I”, if I inserted my husband’s name, it ws correct. I have so many things I want to say, but will try to keep it short I promise. :)

    We have been talking a lot about this lately, partly because of Olivia, who is just a little younger than Eleanor, and partly because we have to make some tough decisions much like you and Brandon as to what we see our future looking like.

    I think the only difference was that he was raised by his mom, who was absent for most of the time, and although his father is very smart, working for companies such as Apple, and now Cisco, he was absent and didn’t have those influences to push him and direct them. In K(he was a young Kinder, October), his teacher wanted to hold him back because he didn’t talk, and his mom told her no… he will talk when he has something to say. Then in 1st grade, his teacher wanted to advance him to second- again she told her no. He is an introvert down to the core… and very very smart.

    Olivia is very much like him in all of these ways. We already have decided on sending her to the local private school, which luckily for us doesn’t break the bank. I love that her private school is K-8 as well, since our public schools are k-6, and then transfer to jr. high. We can only hope we can challenge her and support her during her education so she doesn’t get lost in the cracks the way my husband and I did.

    Your blog has always been inspiration to me.


  • Reply
    May 16, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    This is me exactly, all over! And I have found myself contemplating this recently since I have been on maternity leave awaiting the arrival of our first child – how woul I deal with this type of issue in my own child? What will I do for work once I need to return to it? I don’t want to return to my previous menial receptionist job because I KNOW I am smarter than that – and, I want to be a positive example for my child when it comes to enjoying your work.
    As horrible as it sounds, I hate hearing about the success of others I went to school with who I know weren’t as clever as me, but I know I only have myself to blame.

  • Reply
    May 17, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    Thanks for sharing this! While I’m not quite as mathematically minded as you, I experienced the same path growing up and wishing my writing scores were the highest. I think you’re wonderful and knew there was more to you than meets the eye. I hope you never feel down about the path you’ve traveled again, because I think you are on the brink of anything right now!

  • Reply
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    May 31, 2012 at 12:56 am

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  • Reply
    May 31, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    I am a newish reader, so I am a few weeks late to the conversation. I can relate to feeling like your intellect and academic accomplishments do not line up. My husband and I are both smart, but we floundered in college. I finished eventually and am now almost finished with my master’s degree (trying to make up for lost time), and my husband is finishing up his B.S. When I reflect on my college experience, part of my failure was due to the fear of failure. I was always praised for being smart. Teachers would grade other students’ work off of my work. I was so used to things coming easily for me that I panicked when they didn’t. I thought it was a sign that I might not be that smart after all. It never occurred to me that the kids who I perceived as being smart were also really hard workers. I thought that being smart meant I wouldn’t struggle to understand concepts or have to study. If a class required effort, I would shut down. I preferred to fail because I did nothing than to fail because I tried and was unsuccessful.

    On a related note, I am a teacher and a parent, and I make a concerted effort to praise my children and my students for the work they do and not solely for being clever.

  • Reply
    July 31, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    Dear Nicole-I enjoyed this post the most. I have a guilt complex about being so interested in “decorating” I think its a combination of pursuing order for my humming bird like thought processes and a search for a surrounding that is -white picket fence,summer breeze through an old mullioned window “pretty” No home growing up but where foster care landed me-so probably my missing link. But really I think humans like you maybe the missing link that changes humans from consumers to explorers of your Universe. Something needs to…. cause stuff to consume seems to be in shorter and shorter supply. The outliers will save us-I hope.

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  • Reply
    Bethany Pearce
    January 3, 2013 at 12:07 am

    Wow thanks for sharing this! I have been a long time reader and often wish I was your friend to get to know you better :) This post was a good peek inside the person behind the blog. Thanks for your honesty – because we can all relate and that makes us connected to an otherwise abstract voice on a very good blog. Cheers, friend.

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