By Beatriz Lopez, 17, Gardena HS
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Beatriz now knows that she can’t neglect math just because she struggles with it.

I’ve never liked math. I hate it even. Every time I get stuck on a math problem and can’t figure it out, I want to crumple the stupid piece of paper and throw it across the room. Instead, I take a deep breath and try again, but in the end I still don’t understand so I give up.

I’ve always wondered what the big deal about math is. I understand we use math for money purposes and that some careers require it. But what if your career doesn’t? My parents and teachers told me I might need math for a career, so I always chose one that didn’t require higher-level math, like a chef, an author or a journalist. Everyone should learn addition, subtraction, multiplication and division because those are the math basics. But why should I care about triangles and their angles, the slope of a line, or what sine and cosine are?

In elementary school, addition was easy but subtraction was hard. Having to borrow numbers and add them to the number next to it was confusing. In third grade I felt the pressure to memorize my multiplication tables. Every day the school announced, “Learn your multiplication tables.” When you did they gave you a T-shirt with all the tables. It took me until fourth grade to learn all of them, from 1×1 to 12×12. After that it just got more complicated. My parents would check my math problems and if they saw a mistake, they’d lose their patience and yell, “We just told you how to do this.” Once my dad called me burra, (donkey in Spanish), which means you’re slow. I was in shock and I started crying. If he saw me as slow, maybe I was. Later I realized he had just lost his patience.

I didn’t struggle with everything. I would get 4s and 3s (which are the same thing as As and Bs) in English, science and social studies on my report cards, but on the math section there would always be 2s (which are Cs). That 2 followed me all through elementary school.
When I got to middle school, I still got bad grades in math. In seventh grade a group of students were given pre-algebra and algebra at the same time. My guess was that they wanted to give students two years to pass algebra before they graduated from middle school. I would have pre-algebra before lunch and algebra after it. Pre-algebra was almost the same as algebra but algebra was more complicated. The material would be fresh in my mind and I would apply what I’d learned in pre-algebra to algebra. I passed both classes with a C. As long as it was a passing grade, I was happy.

My school put geometry and algebra students in one class

When I got to geometry, I thought I’d be in a class with the other 10 students who passed algebra. Since it would be smaller I thought I would have more interaction with the teacher. On the first day, I found out that the class was divided into two. Two tables in the corner were for the 11 students who had passed algebra and were taking geometry. The rest were students who had to repeat algebra.

Illustration by Aleksandra Sekulich, 17, Fairfax HS

The smart, “nerdy” students chose to sit together at one geometry table. I sat at the other table with the ones who were barely passing the class. Since the teacher was busy with the algebra students, she couldn’t really keep an eye on us. Sometimes after we sat down she would give us a section to read and tell us to do problems and other times she would go straight to the algebra students. For the first few minutes we would do nothing but talk. Eventually she would tell us what to read and after we did, we continued talking.

When she did teach us she’d pay more attention to the other table of geometry students than us. Their table was right in front of the board. If they had a question, she’d go up to the board and explain it to them. After she was done explaining, we’d ask them, “What does this mean?” but they’d say, “I don’t know” and turn their backs on us. “Snobby little b****es,” we thought. My table would always complain. “She’s not even paying attention to us,” my friend once said. I thought this was something we just had to deal with.

A few months after the class started, I was at my cousin’s house complaining about geometry and how I didn’t understand anything. My cousin said she had hated that class too but passed it with some help. Before I left, she gave me a book with the answers to the problems in my textbook. Not just the odd ones and not just the answers, but the complete way to do every single problem. “I’m saved!” I thought.

After that night, I did every homework assignment. I tried to understand how the book got to the solution but it was still hard because, like our teacher, it didn’t explain why you had to do the steps. Later it just seemed easier to copy. I would bring the book to class and show it to the people at my table to help them out. We worshipped it. We even nicknamed it “The Brain.” I didn’t feel guilty because I needed to pass and this was the only way. I got As on my homework but when it came to tests and quizzes I would get Cs, Ds and Fs. I knew it looked suspicious but the teacher never questioned it, which was a relief. Because of the book, I passed with a C. I was happy it was over. I knew I’d have to take math in high school but I didn’t think algebra II would have anything to do with geometry so I wasn’t worried.

My new positive outlook didn’t last long

In ninth grade I went into algebra II with a fresh attitude, thinking, “I’ll probably do better.” But soon I was miserable. When I didn’t understand something, I knew I wouldn’t do well on the test. By second semester, I wasn’t trying at all. I had broken up with my boyfriend and that was the one class we had together. He sat in the front row. I didn’t want to look at or think about him so I didn’t pay attention. I spent that whole hour doodling. My teacher offered tutoring twice a week after school but I didn’t go because I had already given up. I had decent grades in my other classes. And I kept telling myself I could take it again if I failed.

To make up my D, I had algebra II again in 10th grade. I knew I had to pass it. I did more of the work because I was familiar with most of it. Even though I understood some of it, I still didn’t see the point. I kept thinking, “Why do I need to learn logarithms or the quadratic formula if I’m never going to use it in life?” I got a C. I was disappointed that I didn’t get an A or B because it was my second year, but at least I had passed.

In 11th grade, I finally took my last math class, math analysis. I slowly realized math mattered. The teacher would lecture us about how important the class was. She’d talk about colleges and how they were looking for good grades and well-rounded students. She’d say it would look good if we had an A in this class because it was higher-level math.

There were seniors in the class. The seniors were worried about how colleges would view their math grade, something I had never thought about. I thought it didn’t matter if I got Cs in math because I got As in the other subjects. I started worrying about my senior year, when I would be applying to colleges. What if the Cs and Ds I got in math ruined my chance of getting accepted? I also knew I had to pass because I needed three years of math to graduate and I didn’t want to repeat math analysis the next year. I didn’t want to risk failing my senior year and not being able to graduate with my class.

At a parent conference my teacher told my dad that she was there before class if I needed help. But it was easier to get help from the other students because they were my age and I felt I could talk to them better. I’d ask the students who had good grades and sometimes I understood it.

In class, I took notes. She’d talk about double-angle and half-angle formulas. I’d understand the first part, which had to do with substituting sine or cosine numbers into the formula. Then she would say something that didn’t sound like English at all and that’s when I went blank. I spent a long time at home trying to figure out what she meant but just got more irritated.

I changed my study habits, hoping to improve my grades

At home, I studied more math than ever. I turned off the music and placed my notes next to my homework to see how to do it in case I got stuck on a problem. Before a test, I would review the section (I never did that). But I didn’t do better on the tests because the questions were more complicated than the homework. Only once did I get a perfect score. It was a review of long division. I was proud of myself. Then came the next test, which led me back to my aggravated mood toward math. I got Ds both semesters.

I keep thinking that if I could go back in time, I would pay more attention in class and ask more questions while the teacher was explaining the material. I never bothered asking questions because I get nervous approaching a teacher. I just tried to do it by myself and if I didn’t get it, oh well.

I would also talk to a counselor about putting the geometry students in a separate class. I never thought it was fair for the school to put us in a class with algebra students where we didn’t have enough interaction with the teacher. But I don’t blame that teacher or any of my math teachers. Other students passed. Only the ones who were already struggling with math had problems, like me.

I care more now because every teacher is emphasizing the importance of having good grades in all your classes and how just one D or F might ruin your chance of getting into a college you want to go to. I know now that I should have paid more attention in algebra and geometry. Higher-level math derives from it. Every new section builds on something I saw in algebra or geometry.

If I go to a Cal State and have to take math, I’ll ask for help, maybe use study groups or tutoring. I will need to do more than the minimum. I still don’t like math, I don’t think I ever will. But I know that it is required in college. Because I have a plan, I feel a little more confident going into my next math class.

How can students succeed in math?

To get a teacher’s perspective on how to do better in math, I interviewed my algebra II teacher, Shirley Warren.

What should we do if we don’t like math? How can we do better?
If you don’t like math you need to figure out why you don’t like it first. Maybe you never liked it since you were little or didn’t understand something. If you’re not getting it then take tutoring, do all homework and classwork assignments, and take notes. Try to relate it to life if possible.

What if you don’t want to go to tutoring because you’re sick of math?
How about working with a friend. Have a brother or sister quiz you at home. Go on the Internet [for more information].

How do you prepare for a test?
Always take good notes. If the teacher reviews the day before the test, listen carefully. Reread the chapters and go over the examples in each section.

What’s the best way to study?
Do it quietly. Review notes at home from that day, every day. Ask questions if you didn’t understand something. Sometimes it’s a basic concept you don’t understand. For example, you understand the steps to do a problem but you mess up on the arithmetic. Go back and try to understand it because it will affect the higher-level math you take.

What are some memorization tips for formulas?
You can relate it to a phrase or words. For example, for “rate x time = distance” I’ll remember it from a bus system [in Denver] called RTD. Understand the meaning and purpose of the formula—that helps too. And never try to memorize it all in one day. Have a plan. Take a small section to learn each day. By the time you have a test you’ll have it already.

How do you stay motivated?
For me, I always like challenges. I’m always wanting to do well for the sake of doing well.

—By Beatriz Lopez, 17, Gardena HS