When I was 15, I hated math.
I still remember the day my 7th grade teacher called me up to the front of the entire class to solve an equation. She drew a huge triangle on the blackboard and wrote an “X” on the left side and “Y” on its base. She then looked at me sternly and said, “Miss Mistry, I want you to find X for me and you better make this quick.”
I never really understood the obsession with finding these letters — as if they were playing hide and seek. My tiny hands trembled as I approached the blackboard with a white piece of chalk. I circled X and told her, “Ma’am, the X is right above the Y, what more should I find?”
Her eyes popped out and her cheeks became red. I surely knew I had done something wrong but didn’t know how to solve that triangle on the board.
So I figured out my answer to future problems like this: I subtracted math from my schedule. Where I grew up, in India, a ninth grader in an all-girls school, like the one I attended, must choose what to study, and it’s a decision that cannot be reversed.
To drop math means you won’t have a career as a doctor or an engineer, which my family pleaded with me to remember. The day after I made my choice, eight relatives arrived at my home. One of them looked at me with pained eyes as if I were ruining her future. “Why are you doing this to us?” she asked. “Do you know your cousins have done science and engineering? How will it reflect on your parents if you take up liberal arts? What will they tell everyone?”
I didn’t care what my parents were going to tell others. I was just 15. A teenager doesn’t typically think about the ramifications of a decision. All I knew was that I wanted to be a journalist, and neither science nor math had anything to do with it — as far as I could see. I loved writing and taking pictures. The idea of studying literature, philosophy and psychology was a dream. Math gave me nightmares.
I went on to earn my bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in broadcast journalism. I’ve interned at three multinational media entities, including NPR. Never in all these years did a Pythagorean theorem and a calculus equation stand in the way of success.
But as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized what I missed out on. And I’ve wondered what would have happened if my math teacher hadn’t been strict and scary. What if someone explained how understanding numbers could benefit me even as a journalist? I’ve come to see that a grasp of numbers can be critical when analyzing data. Instead, data-based journalism creeps me out! And in the process of learning to solve equations I could have better developed my analytical thinking skills. Maybe I would have even learned to like math.
If I were in charge of the world, I would change the rules for 15-year-olds. Dropping math enabled me to study the subjects that I liked. But why did it have to be one or the other, math or no math?
I look back and I admire my courage. But it’s a choice I wish I didn’t have to make.
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