Before I can graduate I have to - gulp - pass algebra

Like many midlife women, I went back to college and joined the growing ranks of "nontraditional" students. Each day brought new challenges. I learned once again how to take notes, how to study, and how to appear awake at 8 a.m.

An English major, I eventually became the (oldest) arts editor of the campus newspaper. Although staff members were the ages of my own children, no one brought it up. And while we often lunched together in the cafeteria, I never expected to be included in their spring break trip to Cancun.

One day I received a letter from the dean's office, and my expectations were grandiose. Perhaps he wanted to bestow an award: Distinguished Nontraditional Scholar.

When I opened it, however, I discovered that wasn't the case. The letter was a reminder that if I expected to graduate, I had to pass algebra.

Algebra! The letter trembled in my hands. It brought back buried memories. In my worst nightmare, I am back in high school, standing at the blackboard in front of the class, attempting to solve an equation. Flustered, I scribble nonsensical symbols, which I immediately erase in a vain attempt to baffle. Alas, no one is fooled.

Surely there's some way I can get out of this. At the college library I researched "dyscalculia," which, according to the American Heritage College Dictionary, is "an impairment of the ability to solve mathematical problems." Armed with that information, I visited the dean's office and vigorously mounted a campaign to waive the algebra requirement.

The dean was willing, providing I got permission from Dr. Wong, the head of the college math department.

Dr. Wong listened patiently while I spoke of the suffering I'd undergo were I forced to take algebra.

When I was through, instead of sympathizing, he talked about Estelle, another older student. Like me, Estelle had claimed to have had bad experiences with math. Nonetheless, she visited the college's math lab for daily tutoring. Before long, the world of algebra opened to her. According to Dr. Wong, Estelle got the highest grade in her class. No doubt, I thought, she's now leading NASA's aeronautics division.

He leaned toward me and banged his fist on the desk. "You can do it!" he said.

Thus I found myself enrolled in Dr. Wong's algebra class, held three nights a week. The biggest obstacle, I discovered, was my inability to focus. I sat in the front row, staring at the blackboard so hard I broke into a sweat. Nonetheless, distracting thoughts intruded: What is that cologne I smell?

Meanwhile, like Estelle, I visited the math tutoring center. While fellow students were assimilating the material, I greeted each new formula with panic. Handing back the first quiz, Dr. Wong turned mine face down on the desk. I wondered how many Estelle had failed before discovering her math mojo.

To cheer me up, my tutor mentioned a "math-challenged" student she'd worked with. He performed multiplication by drawing dots "like tiny insects," she said. Knowing there was someone worse than I was a small comfort.

On the final exam, I considered smudging and smearing my answers, in an attempt to bluff and bewilder. I was the last to leave, and as I passed Dr. Wong's desk, I summoned my courage and told him that I'd tried: I'd never missed a class. I'd visited the math center daily. In spite of all that, I said, he shouldn't expect too much.

He responded with a kind smile. "Mrs. Cook, I'm aware that you want to be a writer, not a nuclear physicist. You'll get a passing grade."

I blubbered my thanks. At the door, I turned to wave a tearful goodbye.

Then Dr. Wong added, "Just don't take any more math classes."

For that, he got a thumbs-up.

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