Whenever I have the rare opportunity to visit a math classroom these days, I banter with students about how much I LOVED algebra in school and how they should too.

I tell them how I loved to factor polynomials and solve expressions using the quadratic equation. How I loved working an especially difficult problem just for the challenge of finding the correct answer. How instead of doing just the EVEN problems my teacher assigned for homework, I would do them all – the WHOLE page. Yes, I seriously did that.

Yes, I was am a teenage math nerd.

My love of math started early in life. According to my very unbiased mother, I was adding and subtracting two digit numbers in kindergarten. In elementary school, I used to play Yahtzee against myself (or six “imaginary friends” whichever sounds ‘less’ weird), and calculated my individual scores and averages for each sheet. I filled notebooks with statistics of daily free throws I shot in my driveway and spent hours studying baseball stat sheets.

I loved numbers and numbers seemed to love me.

However, I always thought I would have been a lousy math teacher. It would have been too frustrating. While I love the subject, I often have a difficult time explaining how to “do math” to someone who doesn’t get it.  In my mind, you just look at the numbers and come up with the right answer, right? I just didn’t get “not getting it.”

For that reason, I completely understand why math teachers get frustrated with struggling students. They miss class. They procrastinate and rarely turn in complete assignments on time. They come to class unprepared, talk when they’re not supposed to, tap their pencils incessantly, disrupt others, whine when you ask them to do anything, always need to sharpen their pencil, make inappropriate and disruptive attempts at humor, and generally make the teacher’s life difficult.

More than anything, these children don’t seem to like math!

Even worse is what these children don’t do. Like ask questions. Take notes. Participate in class. Do their homework. Get help before school. Correct failing quizzes, even it will raise their scores.

Don’t they care that they’re failing? Are they trying not to pass?

As teachers, we try to make sense of this behavior. We chalk it up to laziness, disinterest, out-of-school distractions, the cute girl across the room, poor parenting – surely those all play a role.

Yet if you ask me, there’s a more powerful and underlying cause. And it’s rather simple.

Math can make people feel stupid. It hurts to feel stupid.

It’s hard to realize this unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. Luckily, despite my early mathematics prowess, I have (although it didn’t feel so lucky at the time).

So here is my tale of mathematical failure. See if it sounds familiar.

I never earned less than an A+ in any math course I took in high school and earned a perfect score on the math portion of the ACT. After that, it seemed implausible to me that I’d ever fail at anything mathematical. Therefore, when I went to college at Oregon State University in 1979, I never gave a second thought about enrolling in an advanced calculus class, one of just a few freshmen in a hall full of sophomores.

This class was scheduled from 8:30 to 9:20 a.m. three days a week in a lecture hall seating about 200 students. In the front was a chalkboard about four feet high and 20 feet across, covered with math formulas and equations.

Like many classes, the course was taught by an extremely bright graduate assistant from the university mathematics department. I have little doubt he knew what he was talking about. Trouble was, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, for two reasons: (1) I’d never seen this kind of math before; and (2) his grasp of the English language was more than a little shaky.

After just a few weeks in the class, I ran into a little trouble. Like a skier running into a tree.

My failure began as most do: gradually, suddenly. I took decent notes during the lectures, but felt only a hazy half-comprehension. While I could parrot back key concepts, I felt a sense of vagueness, a slight disconnect – I knew I was missing things, but didn’t know quite what, and I clung to the idle hope that one good jolt might shake all the pieces into place.

I  mean, this was math, my all-time favorite subject. Math was easy, it was comfortable – I’d figure it out soon enough, or so I told myself.

But I didn’t seek out that jolt. In fact, I avoided asking for help. Instead, I just let it all slide by, watching without grasping, feeling those flickers of understanding begin to ebb, until I no longer wondered whether I was lost. I knew I was lost.

I procrastinated, spending more time complaining to friends about calculus than in my dorm room doing calculus. I realized that procrastination isn’t just about laziness. It’s about anxiety. To work on something you don’t understand means facing your doubts and confusions head-on. Procrastination pushes back that painful confrontation.

As Carolyn Dweck explained in her research a few decades after my college experience, I had a classic case of closed mindset. Because I had always been great at math, it was part of my identity. Now that I was being challenged above my capabilities, I felt like quitting. Math was now stupid and meaningless.

I blamed others for my ordeal. Why had the university tricked me into taking this nightmare class? Why did the jerk professor just stand up there scribbling equations and talking in some language I didn’t understand? Couldn’t he see that many of us didn’t understand what he was talking about? Why was I taking the dumb class anyway with a major in Geology?

And, when other excuses failed, that final line of defense: I hate this class! I hate calculus!

Say it with me: “I hate math!”

Finally, after earning a pathetic score on the first mid-term exam, I made an appointment to visit with the teacher. I didn’t want to talk with this guy at all. I didn’t like him because his stupid class had made me feel stupid. Therefore, he was stupid.

I was wrong. In just a few minutes in his office, this man just a few years older than me showed me that he cared and that he was willing to spend extra time tutoring me, for free. He shared with me his story about earning a student visa from his native country of India to study mathematics. After he completed his doctorate in a few years, he planned to move back, get married, and get a job with the Ministry of Science.

He could have crushed me if he wanted. He could have told me I wasn’t smart enough or just needed to work harder.

He didn’t. Once he recognized my state of despair, over the remainder of the semester, he spoon-fed me just enough knowledge and skills for me to survive.

I made it through the class with a big, beautiful C- and never took another math class the rest of my time in college!

Looking back, it’s amazing what a perfect specimen I was. I manifested every symptom that I later saw in my own students as a science teacher for nine years:

Muddled half-comprehension.
Fear of asking questions.
Apprehension about getting the teacher’s help.
Copying homework.
Making excuses and blaming others.
Anxiety about public failure.
Terror of the teacher’s or other students’ judgment.
Feeling incurably stupid.
Not wanting to admit any of it.

I tell this story to illustrate that failure isn’t about a lack of “natural intelligence,” whatever that is. Instead, failure is born from a messy combination of negative circumstances: high anxiety, low motivation, gaps in background knowledge, a closed mindset.

Not understanding advanced calculus didn’t make me stupid. It made me bad at calculus, at least at first. And I hated how that made me feel.

Like many of you, I floundered because when the moment came to confront my shortcomings and open myself up to my teacher and peers, I panicked and deployed my defenses instead. For the same reason that I pushed away Calculus at first, thousands of struggling students push away subjects they’re not good at in classrooms every day .

This is important to remember whether you’re a math prodigy, a struggling student, or a teacher holding your students’ sense of self-worth in the palm of your hand. Failing at math ought to be like any failure, frustrating but ultimately instructive.

In the end, I’m grateful for this experience. This sting of failure prepared me for the first year of failure as an educator, which eventually led to me becoming  a better, more patient, more understanding teacher.

And, thanks to a patient, understanding graduate assistant at Oregon State University in 1979, I didn’t lose my love of math.