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Fractions, variables, GMATs, Oh My!

Everybody hates fractions.

That's what my professor told us on the first day of MATH 110 -- well, on my first day of MATH 110, which was about a week later than everyone else's first day.

I had transferred in from MATH 120, after failing the first quiz.

Everybody hates fractions. I hate them most.

You may think, after reading this, that my dislike of math propelled me right into the English Department. Or maybe I found a sanctuary in the Classics Department, where the only numbers are page numbers.

But, ironically, when I walk down the Lawn in May, I will graduate from the McIntire School of Commerce -- as a finance major.

Math and science majors, you can stop reading now. Leave us number-phobes in peace to wallow in our mathematical agony.

What is it about numbers? About angles? About Pythagoras and his theorem?

Maybe it's not the numbers that scare us so much. After all, with the help of a TI-83 or an Excel spreadsheet, we can beat any number into submission.

But when it comes down to manipulating them on our own, we panic.

Well, I will speak for myself -- I panic.

When I try to isolate my fear of math, I can't seem to nail it down. I made good grades in my math classes, and I enjoy the financial math in my Comm school classes.

(Okay, so no one really enjoys financial math. But sometimes my professors read this column, so I threw that in for good measure.)

When I end up in psychotherapy years from now, I can't even blame my math phobia on my "childhood."

My dad was a doctor. Worse yet, my mom was a MATH TEACHER.

Numbers are supposed to be in my blood, or at least in my head. I got neither.

Just like some people have a fear of public speaking, other people have a fear of calculating.

Maybe it's because we never took off the training wheels. We continually rely on a calculator close at hand.

Whether I'm balancing my checkbook, adding up monthly bills or doing my homework, I have that calculator by my side.

Sometimes I catch myself punching in something like "100 + 200."

Our society today doesn't reward us for remembering numbers. We exist in a world of online banking, digital watches and one-touch dialing. My computer can actually balance my checkbook. My cell phone can remember my friends' phone numbers.

I am ashamed to say that I have not memorized any of roommates' cell phone numbers. I am more ashamed to say that my uncle doesn't even know his own!

Fourth years, maybe your own number-hysteria has been surfacing lately too. As we think about graduation, we also think about graduate schools, law schools and medical schools.

Many of us are confronting an old foe: Standardized testing.

Sitting down to begin studying for the GMAT, I calmly reminded myself that these math questions represented an eighth-grade difficulty level.

I passed the eighth grade and made it all the way to my senior year of college. I could do this!

Besides, I could use a calculator on the test, just like I did on the SAT.


In tiny fine print at the bottom of the booklet, I saw my fate spelled out for me.

"The use of calculators is prohibited."

Rather than panic, I decided to try a few problems on my own.

First up? 12 x 8. I multiplied it hastily and got 84.

Apparently, the correct answer is 96.

Did a deviation of 12 ever really hurt anyone?

The next problem gave me an anxiety attack: "What is the value of a if 27a-3 = 92a+4?"

I have an aversion to vowels. I would like to spin the wheel again, Vanna.

Another problem read, "Greg takes 8 hours to copy a 50-page manuscript while Sarah can copy the same manuscript in 6 hours. How many hours would it take them to copy a 100-page manuscript together?"

My first reaction: "Not too long if they just go to Kinkos."

Unfortunately, that wasn't one of the answer choices.

So, there I was. Stranded up math creek without a calculator or even a lousy protractor.

I couldn't even deal with the geometry questions at this point. All the circles divided into their angles looked like a pizza to me. I decided it was time for dinner and called it quits on the GMAT.

We can't get through life without numbers. And I'm not even advocating that we try.

All I'm saying is that letters like x, y and z need to stay in words and sentences like they are supposed to.

There is no need to jump into the middle of my math problems and wreak havoc as a variable.

For my sake and the sake of all of you who sympathize with me, I hope the meaning of life doesn't lie in an algebraic equation.

And I certainly hope it doesn't lie in the math section of the GMAT.

Secretly, I hope it lies in my graphing calculator, and that I will be rewarded by my intense loyalty to my TI-83.

I have had the same calculator since ninth grade and never traded it in for new versions like the 83 1/2.

What was Texas Instruments thinking?

Don't they know that everybody hates fractions?


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