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Learning to Hate Mathematics

A Cause and Effect Essay

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This composition is a revised version of "Why I Hate Mathematics," a draft cause and effect essay. Read (and enjoy) this student composition, and then respond to the discussion questions at the end.

In the essay, the writer explores her thesis by tracing a clear pattern of cause & effect. Drawing on her own experiences in school for examples, she demonstrates why some students develop "a terrible fear and hatred of mathematics."

In the concluding paragraph, the writer reports that her attitude toward math has changed now that she has left school. Consider whether this shift in attitude contradicts or reinforces the points that she raised earlier.

Learning to Hate Mathematics

by Anne Miller

I started to dread arithmetic back in the third grade because I didn't want to memorize the multiplication tables. Unlike learning how to read, studying math seemed to have no purpose other than to give me massive headaches and shattered nerves. The alphabet was a wonderful code that, when deciphered, entertained me with stories and revealed all kinds of secrets about the world. Multiplication tables, on the other hand, just told me how much six times nine was. There was no joy in knowing that. Although even in third grade I understood that I shared with many other students a terrible fear and hatred of mathematics, I drew little comfort from that fact. Since then, I have struggled with math for a number of reasons.

I especially began to hate math when Sister Celine forced us to participate in her sadistic counting contests. Having ordered us to stand in rows, side by side, this jolly nun would shout problems at us: "Forty-eight divided by three? . . . Nine times twelve? . . . Three times eight divided by two?" The students who called out the correct answers fastest would win; those of us who answered wrong or not at all would have to sit down. To be honest, losing never bothered me that much. Rather, it was that feeling in the pit of my stomach before and right after she called out the numbers. You know, that awful math feeling. Not only did mathematics seem irrelevant and dull, it also became forever associated in my mind with speed and competition. During the counting contests, I would deliberately give an incorrect answer early on so that I could escape the game quickly.

As I grew older, math grew worse, like a persistent headache that makes you want to scream to relieve the pain. Negative numbers, I thought, were simply insane. You either have some or none, I figured--not negative some. Patiently, my older brother would try to talk me through the steps when helping me with my homework. Oh, eventually I would puzzle things out (long after the rest of the class had moved on to something else), but I never understood the point of the game. My teachers were always too busy droning out formulas to explain how and why any of these calculations mattered. Who on earth cared about determining the departure times of trains or figuring how long it would take Arthur to walk to the playground? Constantly frustrated by the sheer meaninglessness of it all, I even grew to hate the people and places mentioned in word problems: I imagined trains crashing in the dead of night and little Arthur becoming hopelessly lost on his way home from the playground.

After years of hating math and only barely passing my classes, I started to compound my difficulties in high school by skipping homework. With geometry, of course, that means death. My teachers would punish me by making me stay after school to do--what else?--more math problems. In anger and frustration, I broke pencils and tore paper as I dutifully filled page after page with utterly meaningless calculations. Not surprisingly, I came to associate math with nothing more nor less than pain and heartless punishment. In my recurring nightmares, my head was fractured by fractions and crushed by multiplication signs.

Though I'm through with math classes now and carry a calculator in my purse, math still has a way of making me queasy. It's not that I can't do the math; it's just that it is math. Recently, however, a strange thing thing has happened. On a whim the other day, I bought a book called Mathematics for People Who Hate Math, and even though parts of it seem to have been written in a foreign language, I've actually been enjoying the book. In architecture and engineering, in physics and electronics, even in art and music, mathematics does have a purpose and a meaning. Like the letters of the alphabet, numerical signs can tell stories and reveal secrets about the world. Now, without sadistic teachers conducting drills or staging competitions, I think I might even enjoy learning more about math--on my own terms, at my own pace. But don't you dare throw any problems at me when I'm not looking, because I still get that feeling in my stomach sometimes.


Questions for Discussion

  1. Define each of the following words as they are used in this essay: dread, deciphered, sadistic, droning, compound, dutifully, queasy.

  2. Does the introduction attract your interest while clearly suggesting the purpose and direction of the essay? Explain your answer.

  3. Point out how the writer uses specific details and examples to identify the various causes and effects.

  4. Discuss how the writer uses humor in the essay to maintain our interest and emphasize her key points.

  5. Is the concluding paragraph effective? Explain why or why not. Do you think the writer's shift in attitude at the end contradicts or reinforces the points she raised earlier in the essay?

  6. Offer an overall evaluation of the essay, pointing out what you think are its strengths and weaknesses.
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