Maths and fear

Maths and fear

‘Sinhal Classes’ was where I first learnt that I was ‘stupid’.

After somehow surviving 10th standard without going to tuition classes, I decided they were essential for 12th standard and enrolled myself into one.

If you ever visit their self-congratulatory website, you get a sense of what the atmosphere in these classes could be like; the sweeping images of pimply teenagers and their marks on the homepage, were large hoardings when I was a gawky teenager myself, once upon a time.

This is the place where my ‘hatred’ for numbers began.

Sinhal classes charged Rs.27,000/- for a few months of intensive cramming on weekends– an excessive sum in 2004 that my father was not exactly pleased to shell out. He made this clear when the institute called him up once, as was the practise then, to inform him about my bad test results— “I am paying you so he does better. Don’t call and make this my problem.” (Hang up and back to the grocery list.)

There was not a single peer who didn’t go to these tuition classes, ergo the teachers in college only skimmed through the subjects. And I had no courage to learn on my own from textbooks. I was terrified of my academics by this point (physics, chemistry, maths and biology).

This was the established system.

And it wasn’t like these classes were necessarily ‘good’; one didn’t have the time to genuinely understand a topic. You were given a broad overview and you quickly got to solving potential questions for exams.

I was especially scared of maths.

Students mostly discussed that Pankaj sir, who taught Probability, had a girlfriend outside of his marriage; the Malayali professor, teaching Differentiation and Integration, pulled up in a swanky Sonata every morning; and sleepy Gupta sir, who taught chemistry, made the most money amongst all, for being so sleepy.

This probably explains why, today, I don’t know multiplication tables beyond 12, forget remembering any of Calculus or Trigonometry; I was busy marvelling at those stories.

I would like to take much of the responsibility for my own anxiety around maths back then. But there is something to be said about a broken education system that impacts one’s attitude towards learning itself.

When I got older, I was the guy who itemised bills after outings with friends. It was a dirty job and everyone pretended like it didn’t matter, but without it someone would invariably underpay. I quite enjoyed arriving at oddly precise numbers for everyone, with a calculator and a tissue in the corner. I did that night after night, for years. It kept me in touch with numbers.

There is a very close relationship between maths and music, learning about that has kept me curious over the years. And watching virtuosos casually applying it is even more fascinating!

I eventually learnt that STEM subjects, apparently, help in advancing the human condition and are not just for getting a cushy job and societal status… apparently. Now that I have mastered tallying bills, I think I’m ready to launch a rocket.

In conclusion, I've gotten extremely suspicious of the idea of 'stupid' and I have an observation to make that is glib, naive and—you guessed it—has no scientific basis: You can learn anything you put your mind to.

Don’t ask me to prove this theorem, though.