Sunday, May 21, 2006

Why I'll never be a great knitter

In a word: math.

Reading lace charts and calculating measurements and gauge and yarn substitutions are all things that involve math and that seriously scare me.

Lest you think I jest, I was over at my parents' house last Sunday for Mother's Day and my dad handed me one of my old report cards he'd recently found. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Richardson, (who, by the way, was an awesome teacher and actually won city-wide Teacher of the Year for 1976), apparently knew me all too well:

Click above image for larger, slightly more legible version.

If you still can't read her "Teacher Comments", this is what she wrote:

"Mary is an excellent student. However, at times she becomes a little anxious about new ideas in math; but with effort and concentration she usually can master it."

What an eye-opener! I have no recollection of her writing that, but, boy, did she hit the nail right on the head. I never realized this until recently, but math anxiety has haunted me most of my life, to this very day.

After such a momentous pronouncement by Mrs. Richardson, you'd think I'd get the help I needed, but in 6th grade I changed schools and was put in a class where the teacher used "math contracts", or what I now call, "The lazy teacher's way to avoid actual teaching". How it worked was, at the beginning of the term, the teacher handed out a syllabus-type sheet with a list of an entire semester's worth of chapters to read and homework to perform and turn in, all to be done at the student's own speed, on their own time, and with absolutely no classroom instruction. All of the work was due at the end of the term, with very little regular accountability from week to week. To a kid with math anxiety who requires a lot of hand-holding in that particular subject area, this is a NIGHTMARE. I remember lying awake many many nights during that school year, agonizing about that !#$%^&* math contract. I think I may have even given myself an ulcer over it. I hated sixth grade.

To this day, anything involving numbers and math makes my thoughts turn fuzzy, my eyes glaze over and my stomach flip-flop. I can eventually do it with adequate results, but just like Mrs. Richardson wrote thirty years ago, I really have to make a concerted effort.

Several years ago, while I was still working in a clinical laboratory, my co-worker Sidney told me about the Teen Talk Barbie, who among other things in her vocabulary, said, "Math is hard; let's go shopping!" This created such a public outcry that Mattel pulled her off the shelves. After hearing that story, Sid & I used to laugh and say "Math is HARD!" in a high-pitched, nasally Barbie voice whenever we had to perform complicated calculations to prepare reagents or report out certain results. And I still say that in my head all the time, to this day, whenever I'm confronted with scary math.

I envy anyone for whom math is a breeze. And I now have more empathy for those who struggle with subjects that I always loved, like reading and science.

Reading/writing/spelling have always come as easily to me as the air I breathe, (that same 5th grade year I won the school spelling bee), but how I feel about math is probably very similar to how other folks feel about reading or science. I tutored a man from the Read Center for four years for just that reason - to try and share with him my love for the written word and to give him the help he may not have received as a kid in school. As he was struggling with a very real learning disability as well as the anxiety associated with it, I don't know if our sessions helped in the long run, but at least it got him reading a little bit every week, instead of avoiding it the way I avoid math.

Too bad they don't have a Math Center for adults with math anxiety! Or perhaps it requires help of a more "professional" nature, involving weekly sessions with someone with a couch and a PhD.

So you see, since knitting is my hobby and therefore something I do for enjoyment, I may not ever tackle the scary chart knitting. At least until I overcome my issues with math.

Math anxiety -- I wonder if they make a pill for that?



Suzanne said...

My mom is a math teacher, and my dad began his schooling in engineering.....and I have very limited math skills myself. I am a dissapointment on so many levels!

BUT charts are not math and totally easy (im a visual person). They look hard, but they literally ARE the knitting stitches, written can see the pattern in them if you look carefully. And they are easy to follow and make it easy to catch a mistake when you make them.

So don't be afraid of the chart!

Krista said...

Sometimes when I'm in the knitting shop, and they are helping me with a pattern and the owner starts talking to me about my gauge and how to tell if the size is going to be right and if I have enough yarn, and she is doing all these calculations in her head, I totally zone out and just say, "Could you write that down for me?" Some nights I ask my husband to do the times table because I've forgotten anything past 3X5. And Suzanne is right. You CAN do charts without math. I think perhaps you may never design anything yourself, though. That will always be my problem too. If I have to alter the pattern at all, I drop the project.

Sachi said...

I used to get seriously sweaty palms about math. I thought that I really didn't get it. Somewhere along the line, I ended up using a lot of it around work and not realizing it. Then I was doing budgets for work and all sorts of calculations on a daily basis, still not sweating it.

I started knitting and realized that, with my trusty calculator, I can do anything! I just make sure I write down every step so that my head doesn't spin when I try to figure out how the hell I came up with a particular number.

Tammy said...

Ugh, I hate charted patterns and have yet to do one! And I'm actually pretty good at math. Those charts are just far too intimidating and having to go back and forth to see what the symbols means -- I just refuse!

Bess said...

I don't do math any better than the average person, but I always understood what was needed - just to careless to do it right.

Still, I'll hold your hand - or the chart - if you ever want to move into the scary looking area of lace.

Gingersnaps with Tea... said...

Charts, I don't know if that's a math thing or an infinite patience and ability to track and keep things straight in your mind thing. Either way, I'm with you.
My Dad is an engineer and my math is dreadful. I remember my grade 9 math teacher writing in my year book "So how many tiles ARE there on the ceiling?"
At any rate, you aren't alone.

Robin said...

You know I was never good at math in school...but knitting has taught me more about math than any teacher ever could have. Maybe if my teacher had been a knitter I would have made an A!

Syd said...

Great post Mary! I too avoided charts like the plauge for years. Once I figured out how to read them, the problem was figuring out where I was on the charts when there one repeat was charted, but there were 5 repeats on the row and a zillion rows in the pattern.

I finally came up with a solution that works great for me. It takes a little up-front time, but it's well worth the savings in aggregation and frogging my mistakes.

I recreate the chart in Excel, using borders for each cell so it looks like it's on grid paper. The number the rows (remember to start with Row 1 at the bottom and working your way up - I can't figure out if autofill does this yet). Then I copy and past the chart as many times as necessary (column-wise) to cover the width of the full pattern. Then I insert new rows and copy and past all of the existing rows and colums for as many rows as the item requires. Voila - I now have a chart for the entire sweater! While I'm knitting, I use my trusty highlighter to cross off each row as I'm done, that way I know exactly where to start the next time. When I'm done with the back, I reprint the chart for the front. Then I copy and past the portion of the pattern needed for the sleeves in another spot and do it all over again.

I may not have done a good job explaining it, but it really works.

knitfriendly said...

Hi there, thanks for leaving a comment on my blog! I was fortunate enought to get some STR only because my friend insisted on beelining to the booth and waking up early enough to get there at opening. If you are a little intimidated about charts, I would recommend the pattern from called "Branching Out." I found the chart was a lot easier than trying to follow the written instructions. Also, there are products that you can buy that have a magnet with a red line that runs through it so that one can easily keep her place. Hope that this helps! ~Amber