I Noticed I Didn’t Belong; I Wondered Why

This post is part of an ongoing series of stories about our personal relationships with mathematics. We introduced this series in a recent post. Today’s math story is from Michelle Nguyen, copy editor here at Desmos.

I grew up believing that there are two types of people: those who are good at math and those who aren’t. I had been convinced that our aptitude for math was a born trait, a characteristic inextricably woven into our genetics, like eye shape or hair texture. I also noticed that being “good at math” was reserved for certain people in our society. Math people were geniuses, “model minorities,” destined for lucrative careers, boys. I fell into some of those boxes but right outside of others.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but whether or not I would have an interest or future in STEM was determined in large part by a number of things I couldn’t control. It was a messy patchwork of rote learning, facile stereotypes, and a lack of needed support. As many math stories go, my story started in elementary school.

It was the tail end of the 1990s in California, but I learned math the same way my parents learned it in their grade schools in the 1950s in Vietnam: inhaling formulas and exhaling correct answers. Fast and accurate was the name of the game, and I was rewarded for my perfunctory work.

A few things changed when I entered middle school: I grew taller, math involved letters, and our class of 20 split up for math period—the advanced kids took off to the local high school, the in-between kids stayed in homeroom, and the remedial math kids trailed off to the annex building. The advanced group was all boys, the remedial group all black and brown. I was neither, so I remained in homeroom, treading water.

We were just kids, but we had already started to form worldviews: that there is such a thing as math people, and that they should look a particular way. I was a Southeast Asian refugee. My family lived in an unglamourous rental unit above an office building on the bad side of town. A half an hour south of our county, there was a large population of East Asians, mostly middle class, educated, fourth- and fifth-generation Americans. I looked like them, and so their reputation was attached to my identity—including my math identity. The first time someone said aloud to me, “All Asians are good at math,” I was confused, but took it as a compliment. This happened around the same time I was told that girls were better suited for softer subjects, like literature and poetry.

I existed in this liminal space between society’s definition of “good at math” and “bad at math.” I was trapped in a game of tug-of-war between two identities that shouldn’t have been opposing, but were opposed anyway, and without being able to move in any other direction but backward or forward, I would inevitably fall on one side or the other.

When I started my freshman year of high school, it was no mistake that I found Algebra 2 Honors on my schedule. In the administration office, I explained that I had never taken Algebra 1, and I made an earnest case for belonging there. The counselors and admins had a different idea of where I belonged. They allowed me to drop the Honors class, but wouldn’t let me move down any further than Algebra 2. They were encouraging, but perhaps, presumptive. They thought I could play a good character in their show, but I had never trained, never rehearsed, never even auditioned for the part. I was one of only three freshmen in a class full of sophomores. The sophomores teased us for being too smart, but I couldn’t understand the coursework. My place of comfort was in the back corner of the class where I would avoid all interaction with my peers and with my teacher, lest anyone were to discover how stupid I was.

For the next four years, math was a lonely and foreign infinitude—mile after mile of unfamiliarity. I failed nearly every math exam. I never knew whether a 15% sale on $50 would save me more or less money than a 20% sale on $35. Degrees were used for temperatures, I knew that, but why were they all of a sudden inside triangles? On the math and science sections of the ACT and SAT, I shaded in random bubbles with my No. 2 pencil. Throughout it all, the undying sound of a familiar dichotomy echoed in my ears:

There are two types of people: those who are good at math and those who aren’t.

I let go of the rope, fell into the second group, and wondered what was wrong with me.

People who know my story have asked me why I work at a math education company given my unpleasant experience with math education. I joined Desmos because I wanted to help shape more equitable classroom experiences—ones where all students are included, supported, and empowered in their math journeys; the kinds of experiences that become math stories with happy endings.

This post is one in a series. Other posts in the series include an introduction, and a math story by Allison Hamburger.