I would assume that my math journey started much like everyone else in this country, learning to count in grade school and progressing from there. But that is probably where the majority of similarities end. By the time I was in second grade, my teachers were having “difficulties” with me and my ability to keep up in class. They were mostly perplexed by this since I tested extremely high for things like comprehension and reasoning, I was able to read and understand vocabulary far above my level and I was just a sponge for knowledge. My brother, one year older than me, and myself were administered an IQ test just before middle school. Mine was described as elevated, and his was described as “intimidating”. At the time, I didn’t really understand what that meant, and it was all for naught anyway because eventually my ability to do school work deteriorated. In 3rd grade, my teacher said that my inability to sit still and my inattentiveness was such a distraction to other students that I would need to be transferred to an “Alternative Learning Center” or medicated. My parents chose medication. So, at 9 years old, I was responsible for managing a prescription for psychological and neurologically altering pharmaceuticals. This was in 1995 when ADD was the most over-diagnosed mental disorder and was still vastly misunderstood. From 1st grade through high school, I went to five elementary schools, four middle schools and three high schools. I “passed” only two math classes in my entire K-12 education, and both of them were with D’s. One D was in Algebra and the other was Business Math. I took Algebra four times between middle school and graduating high school. I have since taken Algebra three more times in college, and I have never been able to pass it.
The irony of all of this was that I was able to do well on standardized tests. Once I realized I didn’t have to learn the information–just figure out how to score high enough on the test–I focused on that. I got decent enough SAT scores and was able to crush the ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery), scoring in the 98th percentile. I had my choice of basically any job in the military. In 2004, after graduating high school, I started a career in the Navy as an Avionics Technician. Then, for the first time, I had to use real, applicable math. And these weren’t equations on a test; these were calculations that had real world consequences. Fortunately, there were also real world calculators. After avionics school, I learned about resistance, current, voltages and a wide array of electronic components and how they interacted. All of a sudden, math wasn’t a terror for me. It was a tool, just like a screwdriver or wrench, and using the right version of it for the proper application made my job a whole lot easier.
After serving in the military for four years, I left the service in 2008 and started college just in time for the economy to collapse. After a year and half of working full time and paying for college entirely out of pocket, I gave up. Having taken math twice back-to-back, I was on the verge of failing it the second time. Trying to pay rent while driving myself further into debt and paying for college classes that were never worth credit became ridiculous. Trying to learn how to solve for x for three hours a day didn’t have the same value as working for three hours a day, and I didn’t need algebra to figure that out.
I dropped out of school and continued to work full time. At this point, I was working for a manufacturing company that had a government contract. With no college education, I was doing electrical troubleshooting and quality control on units that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Somehow, this furthered my distaste for math. I felt robbed in the sense that I spent so much painful effort to learn this stuff only to realize that I could use prebuilt specific calculators to do the same work. The ironic echo of “you won’t have a calculator with you everywhere” was almost comical at the advent of smartphones that were rapidly taking over. This was a brief time of stability that did not last long. I was laid off by the company after only two years of working for them. I was lowest on the totem pole and they felt that because I was the youngest employee at the company, I had the highest chance of being able to “recover” from losing my job.
I was evicted from my home, and I lived on couches of friends until my welcome wore out. I was literally on the verge of becoming homeless. Sometimes, I would tell people I was “moving, but my new spot wasn’t going to be available for a week”. I would move my minimal pile of possessions into a garage or closet and then sleep on other people’s couches for a week until I found someone else who would hold my stuff.
A new liquor store was about to open up around the corner from where I was sleeping. The owner had a large amount of respect for veterans and offered me a part-time job. This store had a section that had a sign hanging on it that said “craft beer”. I had no idea what this meant, but I did recognize some of the words from when I was stationed in the Pacific Northwest. Things like “Stout,” “Porter,” and “IPA”. One of my weird friends in the Navy made beer in his garage, and I remembered Deschutes brewing from living there. The owner of the liquor store grabbed six random different beers from the cooler and handed me the six-pack. He said, “Try them out. They are going to be REALLY popular!” I did, and I fell in love with them. I was interested in how these came to be. How is it that most of the beer I had been drinking all tasted the same while all of these tasted so different? I began to research this to an obsessive extent. I worked at that liquor store and eventually moved in with several new roommates as I explored my interest in homebrewing. My roommates were excited about my new hobby and, as I was making more beer than I could drink, they had no problem helping to clear the fridge.
After a few months of this, I was starting to realize something. My beer wasn’t getting better, and I didn’t know why. I was following all of the instructions for the kits I was buying, but things didn’t seem to improve. I finally had the opportunity to talk to a brewmaster, who handed me two books for free after talking with me for two hours about brewing techniques. As soon as I got home, I flipped through them, eager to discover the secrets to making good beer. Unfortunately, they were all full of numbers… ABV calculations, yeast cell counts, enzymatic conversion ratios—even the basic statistics of beer are made using calculations. A red beer isn’t just red, it has a number called the SRM (standard reference method) that uses the density of a solution and how much light it refracts to determine a numeric value that would translate to one particular shade of red. I believe I was about 24 years old at this time, and the subsequent three batches of beer I made got better and better. The fourth won an award. The fifth got recognition from professional brewers. All of a sudden, I loved math! Over the next two years, I went from working at a liquor store counter to teaching college classes as an adjunct professor at AB Tech in Asheville, North Carolina, with no college degree. I was able to memorize conversions of mL to Oz and calculate them in my head, I could convert bbls to gallons or liters on the fly. I eventually got into distillation and had to learn dilution calculations (actual algebra). I started off staring at 700 gallons of 127.4 proof whiskey that needed to be 86 proof. I googled a dilution formula, wrote it in my notebook, and within three months, I no longer needed to write it down. I could use the formula in my head. I built a ten-year career that took me all over the country, professionally judging beer competitions and consulting for breweries. I even designed and fabricated custom equipment that involved thermal load calculations, pump curves, and vacuum and pressure ratings of vessels.
After years of this, I started to realize my problem isn’t the idea of math, it’s the anxiety I associated with it. It’s making the same mistakes over and over because I can’t read numbers correctly. It’s swearing that the homework said problems 42-45 when they actually said 24-54. It’s paying for those mistakes with hours of mentally challenging effort that isn’t worth anything in the end. You can only do that so many times before it becomes overwhelmingly defeating. In my quantitative reasoning class this spring, we were taught about financial math. But I’ve already learned about financial math the hard way. I’ve learned about payday loan traps by paying $30,000 in a single year into them. I’ve learned about mortgage rates by buying houses, and I’ve learned about asset appreciation and depreciation while getting divorced. Most importantly, I’ve learned that math is unmeasurably useful. It’s our best tool for even attempting to understand the universe, and it’s the only universal language we are aware of, even if we as humans still don’t exactly understand it. Now, as a photography major, I want to use math to better estimate distances and scale. I want to use it in graphic design and in rock climbing. But one thing is for sure. I won’t ever stop learning it.
Matthew Fields is a student at Seattle University pursuing a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Photography. He served in the United States Navy prior to exploring a 10-year career in the craft brewing industry. He has traveled to every US state and lived in Italy for a year. Matthew now works in the outdoor industry and collaborates with outdoor-oriented non-profits. He also rock climbs and mountain bikes in the beautiful Pacific Northwest while creating captivating photography.