My love of math and science is no secret to those who know me. Friends call me up at all hours, asking me to answer questions or settle bets regarding all manner of things. I am the Phone a Friend. At least, that's how it works with those who have come to love me. The reaction from strangers is quite different.
I've noticed lately, and especially at work, that the discovery of my mathematical predilections is normally accompanied by a wince and/or head tilt. As soon as I mention that I am majoring in math and physics, I am treated as though I've announced a death in the family. "Oh, I'm sorry," they say. Or my personal favorite, "So you're one of those." Usually, I laugh it off, and use it as an opportunity for research. I ask why they feel that way. Why is they're fear and loathing of math so complete that someone else's involvement causes them pain? I find the conversations fruitful, if not more than a bit repetitious.
The respondent almost always remembers loving math as a small child. They can usually pinpoint an exact year or teacher which soured them on their studies. Often times, they remember being told by a teacher that math was simply not for them. It is at that point that I am able to commiserate. In my junior year of high school, after having taken all honors math classes, my teacher told me one day that I simply lacked the "flare for math." It galls me that people who would say such things are allowed to teach any subject at all, let alone such a notoriously tricky one.
I know now, and I continuously attempt to impart to my friends, that math class is not terribly different from shop class. Both are all about tools and toolboxes. Math class is no more about mathematics than wood shop is about craftsmanship and design. Just because you can hammer a nail does not make you an architect, nor does hating long division mean you are cosmically predestined to avoid math. This is a fact that is lost on most students, and too many teachers, and it is one that bears constant reminder. Students must be given a glimpse of the horizon so that they have something to journey toward. Otherwise, we are asking them to practice for a championship game that will never come.