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Math camp for adults: Fun adventure of terrifying idea?

Photo courtesy of Tucker Sherman Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photo courtesy of Tucker Sherman

Community & Current Events

Math camp for adults: Fun adventure of terrifying idea?

My kids love school. They bounce out of the house each morning eager and excited for the day ahead. I also loved learning when I was their age, but after two university degrees, my adult learning has been limited to half-finished self-help books and work seminars sandwiched between deadlines and responsibilities. Time spent learning about things that aren’t obviously essential to my life as writer, traveller, mother, wife and daughter can feel like time wasted.

It wasn’t always like that. I still remember how, in university, days seemed to go on forever. I would lie in bed reading a novel, finish it, then pick up another right after. Now, in my mom years, “free time” is a laughable concept. Serious contemplation of anything deeper than tonight’s dinner options is rare. Which is why I jumped at the chance to attend the “Renew Your Quest” summer program for adults at Quest University Canada, an independent, not-for-profit, secular university in Squamish, BC.

I assumed that the weeklong course would be like a gift to my nerdy self: an indulgent week of waxing poetic with like-minded adults, plus long conversations over steaming mugs of coffee without kids, ringing phones or responsibilities.  

As it turned out, I jumped off the diving board without checking the depth of the pool. This wasn’t book club—I was about to drown in math class.

The last time I intentionally opened a math textbook was in Grade 12. When I shut that book just prior to my final exam, I made an unspoken vow never to engage with the subject again. Math is my kryptonite, and in a world of apps and calculators I assumed I could steer clear of it until my kids were old enough to figure out I’d been hiding behind the words “if you don’t know, Google it.”

When I mention the upcoming course to friends, responses range from complete horror to questions about my mental health. The required advance reading, a math-themed novel titled A Certain Ambiguity* by Guarav Suri, has me questioning my sanity, too. I’m only three pages in when the pounding headache starts. By page four—which I arrive at an hour after starting the book—my mood has completely soured. My poor husband just nods and ducks as I read out some mathematical gobbledygook. “This makes no sense! This is stupid!” I yell, slamming the book on the bedside table.

A week later—seven long nights of attempted reading—I’m barely through the first few chapters. It occurs to me then that this course might kill me.

Going back to school as an adult
My arrival in Squamish softens the blow. Tucked within the sky-high Tantalus mountain range, next to the dense forest of Garibaldi Provincial Park and only a short drive from where brown bears leisurely amble across the Sea to Sky Highway, the 60-acre campus is a beauty.

At some point during the bus ride from Vancouver International Airport, it hits me that I am going to be completely out of my element here. In Toronto, I’m Mom—maker of suppers and distributor of curfews and reprimands. Here, I’m Heather, assumed smarty-pants. After looking at my schedule, I realize I’m  assumed to be a few other things, too: dorm room sharer, raw food eater, hiker.

They don’t know the woman who works in her pajamas, tries to decipher Minecraft servers and burns chicken on a routine basis. It makes me feel both excited and uncomfortable. On the one hand, it’s a clean slate; on the other, I have the nagging feeling I’m about to be found out as an intellectual lightweight. But it’s too late. I’m here and it’s time for school.

Though Quest, described in its brochure as a “unique university, created for a unique kind of student” has been open since 2007, the Renew Your Quest program only started in 2011 as an intellectual summer retreat for adults looking to reignite their love of learning. “How about a mother of two who hasn’t touched a textbook since it was forced on her?” I mumble to myself as I head up the hill to class.

Outside of the fact that there is a building on a campus, there is almost nothing familiar from my own university days circa the 1990s. There are no lecture halls; on our first day, I sit with my classmates around a large table. A typical class here has no more than 20 students; this week there are seven. Also, I’m not taking math, I’m taking “Infinity, Certainty and Knowledge.” And the professor is not referred to as a professor, but as a tutor.

“Professors profess—we have discussions,” says the brilliantly smart and credentialled Ryan Derby-Talbot on the first day of class. This is not just semantics. The class is about more than numbers and theories.

Overcoming school anxiety
Each morning from 9 a.m. until noon, we study history, philosophy and the arts, and we talk about the minds behind the theories that tormented me in high school. Calling the course a math class is akin to calling the Titanic “a ship.” It’s much more.

My classmates come from all around the country, south of the border and across the pond. There are teachers, retired teachers, faculty advisers, a surgeon—and me. I’m definitely out of my element, but my classmates profess similar discomfort, much to my surprise. Derby-Talbot says that arithmophobia is common and that Quest methodology attempts to change this.

“We try to give the students as much of a first-person experience as possible,” he explains. “We let students step inside problems, to think about them, with the guidance of their tutors.”

There’s often nowhere to hide in the classroom. My usual method—practiced and perfected in my undergrad days—of avoiding eye contact with the teacher while fixing my stare on another student to divert attention, fails miserably. I’m called out several times during the week, and at one point I even have to show my work on the board.

But I soon realize that Derby-Talbot isn’t looking for predetermined answers. He’s looking for opinions. The result is an environment that I quickly feel safe and confident in.

When outdoor group activities commence in the afternoon, the unnerving feeling returns. Case in point: the “Drum Stalk,” in which I find myself barefoot, blindfolded and banging my exposed shins on logs with circumferences twice the size of my head. The goal is to find my way to student affairs staff member Krystle tenBrink—who is beating a bongo drum deep in the woods—using only my ears and sense of touch. The first time I whack my shin, I stop thinking about math.

Every day is like this. By the end of the week, I’ve learned to throw an axe like a logger, watched classmates attempt logrolling, and eaten (and enjoyed!) a raw food meal.

Building confidence in yourself
Looking back, the summer program really isn’t about the courses. The real focus is on personal growth and betterment through education. It’s about giving yourself permission to acknowledge your educational shortcomings, and about facing your fears head-on.

I will likely never need to explain the continuum hypothesis to someone, but knowing that I could has made me more confident. I’m not “dumb at math,” which means I may not be dumb at other things I thought I was dumb at.
 
Will understanding that there is a  “countable and uncountable infinity” make me a better person? Maybe not, but I now feel better equipped to help the kids tackle their math homework. I also feel better prepared to have discussions with their teachers and other potentially intimidating math experts.

I feel smarter. It’s silly to say, but there’s something about conquering this particular fear that cleared some cobwebs for me. I’m not just a mom or a writer best left to Shakespeare anymore. I can cross to the dark math side and survive.

*A Certain Ambiguity by Gaurav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal is a novel about a young man working through mathematical and philosophical ideas in the context of his own life. It’s a worthy read if you skip the math problems.

Looking for interesting ways to help your kids with their homework? Check out our list of education apps.
                                      

This story was originally titled "Infinite Possibilities" in the June 2014 issue.
           
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Math camp for adults: Fun adventure of terrifying idea?

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