Algebra: My Repressed Fears of Being a Failure

Something I have rarely admitted to people is that I failed Algebra not once but three times. Since graduating from high school and becoming an adult, in my day-to-day life failing Algebra hasn't been an issue but I can't say it hasn't nagged at me.

You may hear me say sometimes that I see no practical use for Algebra. I think this declaration comes from two places: I am a writer and a very social person who hasn't had a need for Algebra in my adult life but it may also be a window into something that I repressed for many years and it manifests in my dreams.

Dammit, where's Freud when you need him?

Although I was never held back a grade and it didn't prevent me from graduating from high school and going to college, it was a big ordeal in my home. I had been a student accustomed to getting good grades: As and Bs, but mostly As.

The dreams vary. I am always in school. The teacher changes. Sometimes the teacher in my dreams is a man, sometimes a woman but not one teacher in my dreams is the same as one of the teachers who had no choice but to fail me.

A little About My Relationship With Math and Algebra in Particular

Beyond simple arithmetic: adding, subtracting, multiplication and division, math just isn't my thing. I have always been what my mom used to call "hyper verbal." I have no idea whether that's an actual "thing" because I never cared enough to find out or whether she was just describing my personality. I do know that I struggled with math.

I learned addition and subtraction relatively easily and if it weren't for Schoolhouse Rock, I don't think I could have learned multiplication and division.


Schoolhouse Rock photo courtesy of YouTube

Schoolhouse Rock made learning everything fun. If you didn't grow up on Schoolhouse Rock, all I can say is, I am so sorry! You missed a gem. While you can catch many of them on YouTube, it's not the same as learning from it.

In fact, whenever I have trouble working out something mathematically, I start singing the song associated with that number. It's the only way I can multiply or divide quickly in my head ... the only way.

When I was in grade school I was diagnosed with dyslexia. Dyslexia can affect people in different ways. Some, like my oldest brother, excel in math—he was doing Algebra in the fifth or sixth grade but writing came very difficult to him.

Because of this, my parents couldn't understand why I was excelling in writing and reading and had so much trouble with math. And when I say excelling, let's be clear about something: anyone who's had to edit my writing (Deb, Cathy) knows that dyslexia does find its way into my writing all the time—especially when I'm tired.

Anyway, I think if I were tested today, I might discover that on top of dyslexia, I probably also have have Dyscalculia.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the For...Adulthood

When I was in my late 30s I started having these dreams. I wouldn't really call them recurring because the people and places are never the same. The theme is, however, always the same.

In each one I am just making it to my class—almost always an hour late and as the class is about to end. The teacher looks up at me and stops what he or she is doing and says, "You're late, Sarah. The Algebra final is over and your test is blank. I have to fail you."

In my dreams I shrug my shoulders and turn to walk out the door.

The teacher continues, "You'll never be able to achieve (whatever it is I am working on at the moment) if you can't pass Algebra."

In each dream I never get to find out whether I sit for the exam, beg the teacher to let me sit for the exam or if I leave and decide to chance life on my own.

Something always prevents me from finding out what my ultimate fait is. The most recent one (two or three days ago) as I am waiting for the teacher to decide whether I can make up the Algebra test, Yum Yum started barking and woke me up.

This is normal. There's always something preventing me from taking that Algebra final in my dreams.

I suppose my dreams are telling me if only I had been able to pass the Algebra final, I would be able to get that job I thought at the time was the end all and be all, start my own company, be a writer, write and publish a book, whatever.

Failing Algebra is My Imposter Syndrome?

It's not uncommon for successful people and those still on their path (I am more the latter than the former) to fear failure and moreover struggle with Imposter Syndrome. The fear that no matter what we achieve, despite the obstacles before us that we're actually frauds.

I am not unique. Many people deal with this.

After the most recent dream I had where I failed Algebra, I began to finally associate it with my subconscious talking to me and reassuring me that I can do whatever it is I set my mind to do.

With each thing I have tried since I left corporate America almost ten years ago, I struggled with myself about whether I could make it work.

Becoming a writer at 42 after numerous attempts, I had one of my failed Algebra dreams and decided to just do it. What was the worst that could happen? I asked myself. I'd fail and figure out some other way to make a living as a freelancer.

Running a company was another hurdle. Another dream and well, here I am seven years in and while the company has had ups and downs, all companies do.

My biggest nemesis was believing I could write a book that people would want to read. I did. It's published and I am very proud of myself.

Most recently I have decided to start doing public speaking in Puerto Rico. They're all topics I am familiar with and extremely passionate about, so there shouldn't be any need to fear failure—except for one minor problem: I am not Puerto Rican and someone, shoot, many someones will catch on to this and kick me out of the venue. I'll be called terrible names and ridiculed.

I decided I can't let that fear scare me off. I have talked with many of my Puerto Rican friends here who are extremely supportive and even asked if they can be part of it. My partner in this venture is Puerto Rican and he's behind me 100%. So it's me and it's not rational.

So did I pass Algebra finally? I have been asked this a few times.

Yes, but I think my high school felt sorry for me. It's not as though I didn't try very hard. I just couldn't understand it.

I can't recall but I got a D or a C (likely a D) and it was enough to graduate from high school, get accepted into journalism school and jump a few hurdles I feared (and maybe still fear) I couldn't.

What's Your Failed Algebra Test?