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Mathematical Conditioning This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

   It was three o'clock on a Friday afternoon, and Mr. Pankowski had just introduced long division to my fifth grade class. Most of my classmates had finished their work, but I was struggling miserably with the third problem.

The feeling I had as everyone got up to leave for home was one of complete and utter despair. No one seemed to be having as much trouble as I; in fact, the boy next to me had complained about how easy the lesson was. What was the matter with me? Why was I so stupid, and why were all my peers so good at this?

I told my angry, hurt, and discouraged self right then and there I would never be good in math. This was more a conscious decision than realization, motivated by the need to explain away my difficulties. It had nothing to do with attitude, I told myself it was a biological problem. Mom and Dad were responsible for this, not me, and all I could do was develop my verbal abilities.

I have told myself since then that I'll never be good in math, so why try. Don't waste your energy on a lost cause, and don't worry about doing badly in math. All through middle school and high school I daydreamed in math class, thinking my grades would never be high, even if I tried.

And then yesterday in psychology we were studying statistics, and for the first time this year I stopped paying attention in psychology. It wasn't that I consciously decided not to pay attention, my mind just turned off at the sight of numbers. After class Mr. Sullivan remarked about this, and immediately diagnosed my problem: I didn't like numbers. It had nothing to do with biological setbacks; over the years I had conditioned myself not to like math.

I suddenly understood what I had been doing to myself. Perhaps math really comes harder for me than it does for others, but over the years I built this minor difficulty into a severe mental block. Saying I couldn't do it gave me an excuse to daydream, which made my grades lower, which reinforced the idea that I couldn't do it. For eleven years I had been stuck in a vicious circle, all because, as a child, I needed to blame my inabilities on something other than attitude.

So what did I do today in advanced algebra and trigonometry? I made an honest effort to pay attention, and then after ten minutes my mind wandered off. The years of conditioning myself to dislike numbers overcame my efforts, and I realized it will take more than a day to reverse my negativity. n

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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