Maths homework – grrrr!

Personal development
18 May 2023

My mother (now in a nursing home) used to tell me how she would find me in floods of tears in my bedroom unable to do my maths homework.  "I can't do it," I would wail.

She tried to console me by saying, "Don't worry dear, I'm not very good at maths either and your father and I were both more on the Arts side." She was a teacher with an English degree and my father was a lawyer with a classics degree.

Did that help?

It did in the very short term, but actually it was not what I needed to hear. It rather reinforced that I did have a genetic disposition not to be able to do it, and you can guess the effect that had on my work. However, I ploughed on. Because it was compulsory for O-levels as they then were, I could not drop the subject, although I dropped the sciences as soon as I could and did languages instead.

However, a strange thing happened. I wasn't doing too badly at maths and ended up sitting my O-level a year early and getting an A grade. When I told my mother, I wasn't prepared for her response. "Well dear, I'm not surprised, given the genes you've got. Your grandfather was an accountant and your father is superb at mental arithmetic. I've seen him adding up a column of numbers in his head."

Aaaargh! Emojis hadn't been invented at the time but I can think of a few now I would use in response! Mum, have you any idea what you said 10 years ago and the discouraging effect it had on me?

The revelation that I wasn't genetically wired to fail at Maths but was actually wired to succeed transformed me. It relieved me of an awful burden I had never needed to carry. I took another maths O-level, enjoyed it so much I did it for A level (which surprised some people as my other two A-levels were languages). In my job now, unusually, numbers and accounts don't frighten me. Why? Somehow I innately believe I ought to be able to do it. It is funny, the disproportionate power that words and beliefs can have, even if they are false.


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