“I’m not good at math”

A 10 year old girl and her father sat in the back of my car as I drove them home after Thanksgiving.

During this snippet of the conversation, I felt like I was punched in the chest.


Do you like literature?

Yeah … all the time when I space out.

Do you like literature?

I love stories!

Do you like spelling?

No, I’m bad at spelling.

What makes you say that?

I don’t understand why letters go next to each other in the order they do.

Imagine that you were taught spelling, and not shown any stories. Do think you would like literature?

If I didn’t see the stories, how could I like literature?

What you’re learning right now via memorization, that is to math as spelling is to literature.

What do you mean?

Do you imagine pictures when you read?

Yeah, I love stories!

Do you like patterns?

I like patterns!


They’re pretty!

I love patterns too. I spend all of my time imagining pictures and moving shapes just like you do.

I thought you did math.

Moving, stretching, and constructing shapes is a form of math. It’s called geometry.

Whoa! Really? I’m learning geometry in class, but we just memorize the formulas for volume.

Memorizing formulas is like spelling practice instead of literature.

Can you be my tutor for real geometry? For 4 hours everyday!

Her dad: No, sweetie, she’s probably very busy.

I can give your dad the information of a few people who would be better qualified than me to teach you the literature of shapes.

She falls asleep

I forgot to mention to her (wrt her worry of being bad at multiplication) that two of the greatest mathematicians of all time said they were unable to add without mistakes.

As for myself, I must confess, I am absolutely incapable even of adding without mistakes. — Jules Henri Poincaré

I’ve always been weak in arithmetic. — Alexander Grothendieck

Written on November 28, 2014