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Money and me

In the online resources for Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had, Tracy Zager provides information about the benefits of writing a “math autobiography”. I really have tried to do this, but I am having a lot of trouble organising my thoughs and memories. However, I reckon I can track some of my memories about one particular application of maths: money.

As a child, I hated money. My mother says as a young child I would actually cry if someone gave me money as a gift. She thinks it might have been related to having to make a decision about what to spend it on, which was way too big a responsibility for little me to handle.

This sounds right, based on a very specific memory to do with making decisions. I don’t know how old I was, but I wanted to buy some lollies at the local deli. I talked to my older brother and sister about the process and had a well-formed plan. I could go up to the counter and ask the man for 5c worth of lollies, he would give me lollies and I could go home with them. I walked to the deli with my 5c and went in the door. I reached up to the counter and placed my coin on top and asked “Can I have 5c of lollies?” The man asked me “What would you like…” and proceeded to describe about five options. I couldn’t cope. He was just supposed to give me a selection of lollies and I could have them and go! I wasn’t supposed to have to make all these decisions! I left my money on the counter and ran all the way home. It turns out that using money meant making a whole lot of decisions on the fly and I did not like having to have that sort of pressure.

At some later time, I remember plucking up the courage to try and buy lollies again. I went to the school canteen and put my 20c coin on the counter and asked for 10c of lollies. The canteen lady looked at me and said, “You’ve given me too much.” I said, “But that’s all I have.” After a pause, she reiterated, “You asked for 10c and you’ve given me 20c.” I looked at her, not knowing what to say. I was certain that if you gave the lady more than you needed, they could just give you whatever was leftover. I don’t think I knew the word “change” to describe this, but I certainly knew how the process worked. Still, I wasn’t sure how to explain the concept to the canteen lady on the fly. She stared at me. Acutely aware of the line of people behind me, I took my coin and left. Looking back on this as an adult, I wonder if she simply assumed I didn’t know what the value of the coin I gave her was. Clearly it never occurred to her that I didn’t actually want to spend my whole 20c. I learned that sometimes people treat you like an idiot when you use money.

Later again — I think it was during Year 4 — the teacher had set us an assignment asking us what we would do to spend one million dollars. I couldn’t do it. I had done absolutely nothing on the assignment right up until the very last minute, because I simply couldn’t face it. My mother sat me down to talk to me about it and tears streamed down my face as we tried to figure out what the problem was. I described all the examples the teacher had given, which were about cars or houses or things that people might want for themselves, but I didn’t want any of those things. Cars didn’t interest me, I liked the house I lived in, and I simply couldn’t imagine wanting to spend that huge amount of money entirely on myself. When my mother realised what the root of the problem was, she encouraged me to think about how I might spend the money on someone other than me. How could you use the money to make life better for someone else? In the end, I wrote my assignment about using a million dollars to start an animal shelter in order to look after lost animals. Not until now do I realise this assignment was actually about the size of the number one million. For me at the time, it was about money and spending, which were emotional topics and not maths at all.

This aversion to money-related maths never really went away. In High School, I found topics on compound interest intensely uninteresting. I could “do” them, and I understood their application to my future life, but I never cared about them. When teaching financial maths to high school students, the explanations of which numbers in the graphics calculator had to be positive or negative were never natural to me. Even now I can’t process explanations of probability which define probability as “how much you’d be willing to pay” for something. How much I’m willing to pay for something is such a complex issue, which requires me deciding if I actually want the thing and is dependent on how much money I actually have to spend and my emotional state, not to mention the horror of having to manage the interpersonal minefield of actually negotiating a price.

I don’t have any particular goal in relating all of this and I wonder if it will mean anything to anyone else. For me, it has helped me realise just how much of my like or dislike of particular applications of maths has to do with emotional and interpersonal things. It makes me aware that there will be internal battles inside my students that affect how they respond to maths and its applications that I can’t see or even they can’t see.

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4 Responses

  1. Paula Krieg says:

    One thing that’s really powerful about this story,David, is how a person can be struggling so intensely with a problem has little to do with the problem that is presented. About the canteen lady, it’s easy to think that she was being a jerk to little David, but the fact is, she really may not have known how to make change. Hard to know if in that case she was the one that was struggling with problems that were hard to pinpoint. A good reminder to ask questions of the person who is befuddled. but what a great string of stories. thanks.

    • David Butler says:

      Thanks Paula. It was a tough thing to write.
      That may possibly have been true about the canteen lady. Still, 6- or 7-year-old David could hardly have helped her understand at the time!
      I guess a lesson for 37-year-old David is indeed to ask and listen to people.

  2. Nicola Petty says:

    Kia ora David
    An interesting story, and almost the opposite of many people, like my father, who felt he could only do maths if it involve money.

    I have an aversion to stars and anything much to do with space. The size of it all makes me feel uncomfortable. I know for many people, space is really interesting, but I would rather not think about it. I don’t know why I feel like this, and I have a hard time seeing why other people are so interested in space. We just don’t know what will make people uncomfortable!

    • David Butler says:

      That’s really interesting Nic. Another fine example of how we can never really predict what might be going on inside our students’ hearts.

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