Marjorie Drysdale: Even When You Can Do Math, You May Not Love It

Marjorie Balgooyen Drysdale is a classical soprano, music teacher, conductor, and the author of the book Tagalong Kid.

Not all of the emails Noah Smith and I received in response to our column “There’s One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don’t” agreed with us. Some people said they had tried as hard as they could and still couldn’t do math. In a few cases, genuine dyscalculia might be at issue. But more often, I suspect the problem is with the quality of the math teaching. Elizabeth Green had a fascinating New York Times article “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” a few days ago that pointed the finger squarely at the lack of adequate instruction for math teachers in how to teach math.

Marjorie Drysdale, who received a Master’s degree in Music from the University of Michigan, graciously agreed to share this email she made in response to Noah’s and my column. In addition to the issue of how math is taught, and where one is at when the math is taught, she points out that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you will love it. I agree. There are always tradeoffs in life, and time spent doing math is time away from doing something else that you may love more–maybe a lot more. But at least if you know how to do math, you can make the choice. And if math is taught well, what you learn will have some value for your life.

Dear Miles and Noah,

Regarding your essay, There’s one key difference between kids who excel at math and those who don’t,” I have to disagree with your assertion that “For high school math, inborn talent is just much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.”

I was an excellent high school student. I worked hard, prepared, and was self-confident.  I always made the high honor roll. I graduated 2nd in my class.

I went on to a competitive college and graduated with highest honors, phi beta kappa.  I had two majors. I was always on the Dean’s List.

I went on to get a master’s degree and graduated with honors there, too. I became a professional musician. Supposedly, math and music go together. Not with me.

After geometry, I simply “didn’t get it." I took one more year of math—a course which, in the 60’s, was called "fusion." It was a combination of trigonometry and advanced geometry. That did me in. Until then, I had always earned A’s in math. I barely passed "fusion.”

It might have made a difference that I had skipped a grade and then was put into the “honors group”—an accelerated class. (In those days, classes were “tracked.”) In that class, we were taking courses a year ahead of our peers. Therefore, I was taking courses two years ahead of my peers. Perhaps I simply had a “readiness” problem. 

I “hit a wall” and never went back to math. It had nothing to do with lack of effort, believe me.

Oddly, when I took my GRE exams after college and two years of work, my verbal and math scores were both in the 700’s. This truly surprised me. I hadn’t taken a math course in seven years.

I think that “readiness” in my case was more of a determining factor than “hard work.”

As I grew older, I understood it better, but I still didn’t like it. There are people who adore math. They light up about it. They enjoy it from the get-go. Therefore, I do think there is an innate element to these differences. Some people love math; others don’t.

I adore classical music. Most people couldn’t care less about it. The first time I heard it, I was hooked. That had nothing to do with hard work, either. Succeeding in it required hard work, of course, but the love came first.