Back in high school, I enrolled in all AP classes. This was back in 1988-1992, when AP classes were still new in our school and only the top handful of students could enroll in them. It was the superstars and then me.
I stood out from my classmates in many ways. For example, I had 87 absences during my senior year of high school.
There were 180 days in the academic year. Why was I absent 87 days? The main reason was that I was living in an unsafe home. I had a couple of friends and they did not have the best ideas for how to spend our daytime hours, and I went along with them. I am the only one from that small group who lived past age 40.
Back inside school, I remember Mrs. McCabe, our AP Calculus teacher. She was the best. And AP Calculus was, at that time, the toughest class. There were probably 12 of us in that class, out of a graduating class of around 550 students I think? AP Calculus had the highest achieving 11 of them and then me and my 87 absences.
My Relationship with Math
Math when I was Little
Look. Computation, number theory, the fundamental theorem of calculus, proofs, these things have always given me tremendous autistic joy. Some of my earliest memories involve exponents and understanding squaring and cubing real numbers. In second grade, I was so fast at the Around the World multiplication game that Mrs. Ginsberg put me out in the hall to let the rest of the class play, because otherwise only I would ever win.
I was always very, very much more advanced in math than any peer I’d ever met. And some teachers, and my parents, felt threatened by this and it got me in a lot of trouble, from being sent out into the hall during Around the World for always winning to being yelled at and beat for “thinking I’m so smart” when I spoke at my house.
Math and Me in HS
My love and skill for math remained through high school, although it was less outwardly evident while I was dealing with abusive parents and puberty and the customary social pressures of being a teenager who’s queer and autistic and weird and extra, while trying to survive living in an unsafe home. It was still evident enough that I had stumbled into the elite Calculus class.
And I loved when Mrs. McCabe would be introducing a new topic in class! I would sit back, cross my arms, and watch Mrs. McCabe write with those multi-color dry erase markers on the transparency scrolls of her projector, as she explained to us the next calculus topic.
It was all so magically elegant, and just made good sense. She would explain it and I would get it. She would then give us practice problems to test for understanding. I would do those easily and get the right answers, first in class even, with minimal effort, and I was never wrong. We had some eye contact in these moments, Mrs. McCabe and me. It said, “Calculus really is gorgeous, right?” And yes, yes it was.
We’d do a bit more practice in class, all good, and we’d leave with a homework assignment.
That’s where it fell apart for me. Here’s the thing: I really cannot take notes. I had this way of running around with a lot of scaffolding of new learning somehow taking place in my working memory. I had a lot of RAM*, but when I maxed out my RAM, or went to sleep, it was all gone. By the next day, that homework assignment could have been written in a foreign language.
*The RAM metaphor is crude but sufficient for our purposes. The important detail is that usually learning requires attaching new information to known information, scaffolding, in long term memory, meaning it should be available for later retrieval. Instead, I recalled known info into working memory and juggled my learning tasks there, never properly encoding them or sorting them for later recall.
Occasionally, I’d ask for help on the next day. But here, Mrs. McCabe would look at me ever so puzzled, her eyes squinted. I felt like she could tell that I wasn’t messing with her, but at the same time, she wasn’t sure how someone could go from first place to last place every damn day.
She’d say, “You always understand in class. I’ve been double-checking your classwork before you leave. You’re right on track. You get things before the others in class. We then go through all the practice problems and you’re good. So what is going on?”
Because it was never sorted or encoded, my daily calculus successes were forgotten. And in my case, this was observable in the form of “no notebook” even if I couldn’t verbalize “notetaking-help” as my specific need.
Then vs Now for Me and Math
I was an early math genius, who later blended in with the outstanding students in my high school and then went on to nearly fail out of high school in the 12th grade. Because the acceptance to college was based on 11th grade transcripts, I began college after HS, but I was intermittently homeless (unsafe home thing again). And since higher-level math courses were hard without notes, I was failing most classes. I dropped out of college just shy of failing out there also, and enlisted in the military.
So, me and math were pretty far apart at this point.
After earning my bachelor’s degree, my first master’s degree, and a graduate certificate, I passed the state High School Math Teacher subject test with a very high score. I went on to tutor several high school math teachers (at the same HS where I once sat in Mrs. McCabe’s class) so that they too could pass the state teacher test for math.
While teaching high schol math for eight years at the school from which Mrs. McCabe was retiring, I mentored some math teachers on how to teach complicated things more accessibly. I’m still in touch with some students from my high school math classes, which were 25+ years ago.
I was a wildly successful private tutor, math teacher, and highly-sought statistics professor. In addition to another, 90-credit master’s degree, I’m also a PhD candidate with a quantitative dissertation and research focus. I’m a very, very much expert mathy-type scholar today! I’ve contributed to undergraduate Statistics textbooks with hypothesis testing outlines and other curriculum tools to help teach math to students who might not immediately love it or get it.
For Real Tho
I’m the mathiest person I know, successfully so! This is indisputable. Yet if you scroll back through my life’s timeline, you’ll see a high school and then an early college student failing out of school because, among other things, they couldn’t take notes.
It’s dramatic yet accurate.
If you’re an educator today, please think of a student in your classroom who’s currently failing. You probably have some biases and assumptions about their future. In reality, we do not know their future. I’d invite you to envision a future for them that resembles something like mine, because it’s possible.
Can you imagine? What if I had received some support back then? What kinds of greater social contributions might I have made in my lifetime? I think about this all the time, about the extra years it took me to learn how to learn, about how I’ll be wrapping up an elite PhD program by age 51 years instead of at 31 years old.
What Would Have Helped Me Back Then in HS
Really, there were so many bruises. Grownups should never find themselves too busy or with so much burnout that they cannot deal with this stuff, leaving kids where nobody should have to be.
But in terms of academics, everyone’s needs will vary.
For me, personally, and I can only tell you in retrospect, I needed either a note-taker or for someone to help me figure out how to take notes. Nobody “checked the notebooks” of the supposedly brightest students in the graduating class, so this was never even observed by anyone. And I didn’t need notes to take standardized tests, which I could score perfectly on for math.
(Don’t get me started on the validity of standardized tests – they are as much of a game as if Mario were there taking it with you in a big red hat.)
To this day I cannot take notes, although I’ve come to deeply appreciate quality notes, and they are a key tool to my learning and retention of complex topics at this point in my life as an academic.
Educators, for the students within your wingspan, figure it out together what they need. If you observe that they can sometimes Do The Thing and other times not Do The Thing, they need some support. Please help them figure it out.
I know it’s hard. I know you’ve got so many students or clients on your list and there’s only one of you. I get it. You’re exhausted. I will advocate for you to have more adequate resources every chance I get, I promise. As long as you’re in the job you’re in, we need you to advocate for supports for those kids. Deal? It takes a village.