Saturday, July 31, 2010

What If?

I came across an inspiring blog post, " The Dysletic Atheist" in which the writer, jon_poson26, recounts  how as a child he struggled with a learning disability but was finally rescued by a retired teacher who took an interest in his plight and became his mentor. Interestingly, the author's handicap was confined to reading but did not interfere with his math and science capabilities.

I can relate to this story, but with a twist.  In grade and high school I did well in reading and writing but sucked at mathematics (What! A Jew who can't do math?).  In high school I limped through linear algebra and crashed and burned in geometry.  Based on my overall family background, this deficit is puzzling.  Some of my relatives  hold Ph.D.'s in math and physics.  Others are—or  were (now retired)—in other professions that also require high numeracy and logic skills. But if talent for math were a family inheritance, I was left out of the will.

However,  in high school I did well enough in other courses to be recommended  for an English honors course which I successfully completed.  I vividly remember being the only student in that class that semester (or ever?) who due to my math deficiency  was simultaneously enrolled in a" math-lite" remedial physical science course  rather than chemistry or physics, both of which require an advanced algebra background.  In other words, among my peers there was usually a correlation between math and science skills on one hand and reading and writing proficiency on the other.  In that regard I was an oddball and hence can fully appreciate the somewhat parallel although opposite predicament experienced by the writer of  "Dyslectic Atheist".  Looking back I wonder why a school guidance counselor didn't pick up on this anomaly.  After all I was too young and trusting of authority to question the matter on my own.

When I started college,  I was required to take a remedial math course which I managed to pass with a "C", and after several attempts I finally passed the examination that would have enabled me to enroll in a college algebra course. However, I wound up not finishing college (the reason that I dropped out was not related to academic performance)  and so never got around to taking that subject.

As jon_poson26's story shows,  sometimes all it takes is a certain chemistry—a connection—with a teacher to impart a feeling of hope and  turn things around. If an educator is not only  learned in his field but can also instill enthusiasm for the subject matter and a sense of self confidence in his or her students, that is the mark of  a true professional.  Such was the teacher who had enough faith in my abilities  to get me into an honors course as well as the one who taught that class itself and likewise offered encouragement.

Reflecting further on  "The Dysletic Atheist" has made me wonder what direction my own  life might otherwise have taken had I also been fortunate enough to get a dedicated teacher or mentor to help me overcome my difficulties with mathematics. No doubt It would have improved my feelings of self-worth which were already low as well.  In fact I dare say it was the lack of self-confidence that also kept me in the thrall of God-belief for so many years.  In both cases at the time I didn't catch on how the logic of complicated higher math formulas and the reasoning behind atheism have one thing in common:  If you take the time to analyze them, they both add up. 

I'm a senior citizen now, and one thing on my "bucket list" is to complete my degree.  If I do so, the very first class that I will take will be a college math course, whether or not I'm fortunate enough to do so in a class room setting under the tutelage of a skilled instructor, or via the Internet instead.  I may even try for credits by taking equivalency test such as CLEP.

Whichever of these options I select, I'll need a great deal of review and preparation. But now that my mind and spirit are no longer chained by  some of my previous problems, especially the repression and "ill-logic" of theism, I believe that I  can better focus on the task at hand and have a shot at achieving my no longer impossible dream.


John_poson26 said...

I’ve met a few Jews who were not the greatest when it came to math – that’s just like saying that all black people are excellent basketball players – I’m living proof that we’re not – or maybe it’s because I’m only half-black.

Of all the Jewish scientists who I’ve met; I am yet to meet one who had a literal belief in any religion, one guy would tell me: “I don’t believe that talking-snake bullshit, I just play the Jew-game.” I never really understood exactly what he meant?

I’ve found one thing interesting as I have gotten older, is that I can understand complex mathematical concepts even better now than I could when I was younger – I believe in my case, this is because no one is looking over my shoulder – less stress, and it’s all my time now.

Go for it, I believe that you’ll do just fine – never too old to learn

Great post!

Secular Guy said...

Hi John,

Actually, I was being somewhat ironic about the "Jews as mathematicians" stereotype. Anyway, it doesn't matter anymore. We've been overtaken by the Chinese anyway in that department anyway (more stereotypes.)

I guess that the Jewish scientist you mentioned was referring to the serpent in the Garden of Eden fable. I suppose he meant that he was playing the "Jew Game" by going along with those who do believe it in order to get along. Been there, done that.

I think that you're right about the stress factor interfering with comprehension.

Finally, John, thanks for the vote of confidence. Nothing to fear but fear itself.

Alan M. Perlman said...

Playing the Jew game for the sake of family loyalty and social connections is more widespread than I thought.

Wishy-washy Jews like my family have no problem with three days of synagogue attendance/year, plus a Seder and Hanukkah candles. That's it. Apparently they have a special arrangement with God that exempts them from the 600+ commandments.

But in the past couple of years, I learned the word "orthoprax" - for Jews who do the Orthodox thing for appearance's sake BUT DON"T BELIEVE IT. The cognitive dissonsnce must be awful.

Fear and self-confidence are indeed big factors in religious conformity. It takes courage (and support from like-minded unbelievers) to challenge the notion that religion is a mass make-believe that nobody bothers to question.

Good luck and go for it!

PS. I am a Jew who's no good with money. If I had the faintest idea of how to get rich, I'd be rich. And even worse: When I was in corp. life, one of my Black colleagues confessed that she couldn't dance!

Secular Guy said...


Re "Orthoprax", As I have mentioned I attend shabbat services at the Orthodox shul here in Manila because it's the only "Jew game" in town. I do feel stressed out sometimes about wearing a tallis, putting up with gender-segregated seating, etc. But my purpose in joinining in is to greet, eat, and meet: Greet fellow congregants whom i already know, eat the great lunch served after the services, and while doing so, meet new people.

I'm also NG with money, else Lydia and I wouldn't have expatriated. I'm glad to know that I'm not the only stereotype buster.

Ani Sharmin said...

Teachers have had a great impact on my life. I've had my share of bad teachers, but some good ones, too, and they made all the difference.

Whenever a class or topic was difficult to understand, the teacher could really make it better.

All the best, and I hope you complete your "bucket list"!

Secular Guy said...


Maybe you've seen that adage "If you can read this, thank a teacher".

Thanks for your kind words about my bucket list.