Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Identity theft

"I've always been good at math." No seriously, like really good. I once skipped studying for a calculus final in college because I felt I'd learned enough doing just the homework and I wanted to play some Magic the Gathering in the cafeteria--I managed to get the highest grade in the class. In high school, my senior year, I participated in a school-wide math test and was crowned math champion of Lakes High 1996. When Robyn took statistics in college I not only explained Bayes Theorem to her but pointed out that the manner in which her professor was teaching it was incorrect. 

So I've said on countless occasions, "I'm really good at math." I made this realization in the fourth grade when our teacher would make us take timed tests of our multiplication tables and I was always the first one done. It progressed naturally through high school, as I explained above, and later carried me through higher level math in college. It was mostly effortless, some sort of natural number sense. Often it was hard for me to explain math to other people because it was all so very intuitive to me. I had no language to explain my intuition, I still don't. 

I've spent my life believing at any given moment I likely was better at math than anyone else in the room. This notion of course is challenged from time to time when encountering someone who studies math for a living, but this happens irregularly.

Part of my personal mythos is that I'm a person with great math skill. I'm male, I'm nervous in front of big groups, and I am a math champion. These are long time constants of my identity, old traveling buddies. 

But why care? It's incredibly tedious I imagine for someone else to read about these facts. And it likely comes off as bragging. But I'm trying, and ironically failing (if you keep reading you'll see the irony eventually), to find the words to express how big of a part "being good at math" is of my identity. I've worked as a programmer for 17 years now, day in and day out; even so, when I think of myself and my talents, math comes to mind before software development. It's a layer of skin. 

Who else am I? I hated writing papers in high school. Grammar vexed me; I was horrible at spelling; writing at length made my wrist hurt; my senior year English teacher told me I had a limited vocabulary. I partially chose my college major because it had me avoiding major writing assignments. Still to this day I'm a terrible speller, and sometimes I want to dropkick commas and semi-colons. 

Then today happened. I sat down at a computer and over the course of four hours attempted to bang out answer to the GRE. At the end the testing software flashed two numbers onto the screen. The numbers themselves probably lack meaning to most people not actively preparing for the test or who haven't recently completed it. You get two immediate scores upon completion. One for "verbal" and one for "quantitative" which is synonymous with "math." My verbal score was exceedingly good, something that places me in the 98th percentile of test takers. My math was far less flattering, a relatively pedestrian 71st percentile score (I would have been happy with an 85th percentile). The score is borderline embarrassing to me, it's hard for me to share it here. 

I no longer know what it means when I say "I'm good at math." I've been in a bit of a daze since seeing these scores. 15 years ago I never would have guessed I could have achieved either of the scores I did. A part of me feels like I should be celebrating that verbal score. But I feel at a loss, like some part of my identity has been taken. Perhaps it has been replaced with something even better. But that doesn't alter the fact that today I feel like I know myself less than I did yesterday. Where else might I be wrong about who I am? Am I getting old and slow witted? So, you see, all that earlier bravado wasn't about me, but about some other version of me lost in the swirls of time. 

I can give you a logical explanation for why I received the scores I did, but it doesn't make the experience, even now, any less dizzying. Here's the explanation in its simplest form: I've read and written a lot these past ten years. As for math, besides simple addition and subtraction and calculating a 20% tip, I have rarely used it. Geometry has been especially useless in my life and the test bombarded me with questions about angles, areas, and lengths of sides of rectangles. Once upon a time I knew about those things. And once upon a time I was good at math.