Last week I wrote about our school reunions and what they meant to me. In that blog I shared about my troubles with mathematics. I was so poor at mathematics in high school and my early college experiences that I would get sick to my stomach prior to mathematics tests or quizzes. I avoided math experiences like the plague. That began to change at Clemson University when I took a statistics course that I really loved. I liked statistics so much that I enrolled in another one in the following semester. Then I left college due to illness and didn’t return until nearly ten years later.

During my hiatus I landed a job as a custodian at public school. One of my astute coworkers remarked one day, “Donald, you have a mathematical mind.” I said, “you’re crazy, I failed algebra, geometry, almost trigonometry and avoided computer science courses. Six or seven years later after earning a bachelors degree and becoming the school district technology director I was taking a course where I used the computer language LOGO to teach geometry to a fifth grade student. The student was doing quite well and I enjoyed my work with him. One day however the video display failed and the student and I were left to negotiate the curriculum sans video. He had difficulty understanding the geometry material presented and I had trouble articulating it too.

Difficulty is often the parent of insight and that day I had an epiphany. I was not “dumb” and neither was my student. I realized that both of us were visual learners. My problem up until then involved being able to see the math. That experience as a graduate student changed everything for me. I no longer feared mathematics and instead became fascinated with how technology could actually improve math instruction. I began teaching students at my home district mathematics using the LOGO programming language and Apple IIe computers .

I used to share that awakening with students when they were discouraged with their own progress. Life and learning are rarely linear. They are instead a series of efforts, mistakes, failures and successes. I learn best by iterating. I went back to my custodian friend and asked him why he told me I had a mathematical mind. He said, “when ever I gave you strings of numbers you could easily add, subtract, multiply and divide them.” He was right. The moral of the story is don’t ever give up nor let others define you. Learning never ends as long as you’re willing to listen.