A Math Lesson in New York City 

Most, if not all, of us remember a moment in adolescence – a moment filled with fear, panic, shame and despair when we faced a math test or – even worse – being sent up to the blackboard to solve a math problem in front of the class.


Those sadistic and masochistic men and women posing as teachers obviously thrived on the torment of young, unsuspecting and slightly overweight and dorky children.

So maybe this is personal…

God knows I was one incredibly overweight, dorky and awkward kid.

Of course, part of this is told in jest. I have a deep love for teachers – my mother is one and I eventually became a professor, after all. Some of the most influential people in my life to date have been teachers, and yes some of them were even math teachers.

When I finally made it through undergrad, I was hit with an epiphany about math.

Math is NOT about understanding 1 + 1 = 2 or making our way through complicated word problems about the speeds of trains and when they will crash into each other – a question to this day that makes me question some approaches to learning. Math is simply about the application of knowledge. Math stretches those muscles that we have all said the question,


Every damn day. That’s when.

Back to our lesson – I’m sure you’re thinking, “WHERE is this going?” Let me begin by sharing something that happened to me a few weeks ago.

You never picture yourself as being the “older and wiser” one. Just so you know –  I am FAR from considering myself as old or wise but when you’re teaching a group of 19-22 year olds you may as well be 100 and if you’ve got the freakin’ title of professor, you had better be smart at something, right?

A student stopped me after class because she was facing a frustrating situation with her work. For the sake of protecting the innocent, we will call her Pocahontas – because it’s my blog and I can call her whatever I want.

Pocahontas, like me, had forged a modest career in retail. She had worked for multiple small box retailers – imagine a smörgåsbord (thanks Google for that spelling) of tacky clothes from a retailer defined by the age of 21, and a place filled with ‘secrets’ (though those ‘secrets’ are few and far between at this point) all lathered up in obnoxious scents from lotions and oils used in your baths and on your body (I recently read an argument on trademark infringement – so pardon my obvious, yet indirect references to actual retailers).

At each of these jobs, Pocahontas experienced trial after trial. She shared with me a story about how she would disagree with her manager and the way she made decisions when the running the store. In another situation, Pocahontas would get into arguments with her coworkers over petty situations like whom is responsible for which task when closing the store. I even heard situations where she would get into verbal altercations with customers because “they didn’t know how to talk to me.”

Pocahontas was very aggressive as you can see. She was also bad at math as it turns out.

After listening to story after story I finally held up my hands and made a simple statement.

“Pocahontas, if there is one thing about me you need to know it is I will be honest if you ask my opinion. You have come to me because I assume you want my opinion, right?”

“Yes. Why do I keep having bad luck at my jobs.”

I then replied,

“Pocahontas, you are the common denominator to all of your problems.”

Enter sweaty palms, panic and a fraction freak out. As a reminder, when you add or subtract fractions it looks something like this:

1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8= ?       > > >       4/8 + 2/8 + 1/8 = 7/8

The common denominator is 8.

Back to reality – and a normal, regular heartbeat.

Pocahontas had lost sight of the fact that she was the common issue in each of her problems. She was playing the victim, when in fact she was the unknowing villain in the majority of her stories.

The math problem above and the simple application of the principle spells out the issue Pocahontas had.

She looked at me in shock but a subtle realization came to life in her face. I encouraged her with the fact that this is a common phenomena and she is not alone. We often pass blame to others and forget that we are the consistent factor in each problem we face. I left the conversation on a positive note an encouraged her to do some soul-searching about her choices of employment and the ways she engages with her future coworkers.

Again – I’m not claiming that I have a clue or an accurate perspective in life – but never have I spoken so surely about a topic with someone who respected me enough to ask my thoughts. This idea is something I believe and have since preached both in my personal and professional life.

We are the common denominators in our own successes and problems.

Every relationship issue you’ve had – you were there.

Every failure you’ve had – you were there.

Every victory you’ve had – you were there.

We live in a world where people are often “outwardly focused” – not in the sense of being unselfish, but pointing to our circumstances and the people around us as what or whom is responsible for our situation.

We are all Pocahontas in some way at one point or another. The question is will we be open to the idea that we need to look at ourselves first when dealing with the struggles we face, or will we simply panic and blame the teacher?

The fact remains, math is a hard and inescapable part of our lives.

Our damn math teachers were right.


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