How algebra ruined my chances of getting a college education

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Algebra was responsible for the first F I ever got.

While I was never a straight-A student, I wasn’t a screw-up either. But tell that to Mexican-immigrant parents who dropped out of school after first grade and took pride in seeing their offspring get the education they never had. I’ll never forget that dreadful parent-teacher conference after that seventh grade F, or the silence in our minivan on the way home. There was no congratulatory feast at Shakey’s Pizza that night.

I’ve never passed algebra. In high school pre-algebra, I weaseled my way to a C by teaching my teacher how to play “Angel Baby” on the acoustic guitar. Geometry came next, and I passed with no trouble. In my senior year. my problem with algebra was shared by many other students and posed a threat to the record of my “California Distinguished” high school. So the administrators decided to count Accounting 1 as an algebra equivalent. I passed that with a B+.

When I entered Pasadena City College, in the hope of transferring to a four-year institution, the placement exam put me two classes below the California transfer requirement class of Statistics 50. I wasn’t the only one with this problem; 80 percent of my fellow incoming students also place into below-college-level math, according PCC’s research office.

Four and half years later, I still haven’t passed. OK, let me be honest – I failed algebra seven times. I started to question my character, my brain, my capabilities, and even my values. How was I able to write a cover story for Saveur magazine in 2011 but unable to pass a class that involved mixing numbers with letters?

Ready to break down in desperation, I made an appointment with my academic counselor. He pointed me to an experimental class called “Exploring Topics in Mathematics.” It promised to jumpstart me into Statistics 50—into the next-to-last class I’d need to complete in order to transfer. I immediately enrolled.

The class teacher was Professor Jay Cho, a slender, soft-spoken 41-year-old from Korea who had received his Masters in mathematics from UC Irvine. “You can just call me Cho for short, or, as some of my past students called me, notorious C-H-O,” he told us. Cho taught us how to complete Linear Equation problems by relating it to blood alcohol levels when you drink and drive. He used the almost-daily tardiness of the Goth girl to teach us relative frequency approximation of probability. It was a modern-day version of Stand and Deliver.

Twenty of the 35 of us passed the class. That was a far higher rate than normal for the level of math we were being taught.

But my story doesn’t end there. I still had to get through Statistics 50, also taught by Cho. And how did that go?

I failed. Cho felt I just hadn’t devoted enough time to studying. I wish the explanation were that simple.

According to the current regulations of California, I am ineligible for college, and I shouldn’t even have a high school diploma. The thinking in such policymaking is that 1) despite all the failed attempts, all of us who fail algebra are secretly able to pass it, if we just push ourselves a little harder. And 2) that higher education would be wasted on someone who can’t pass algebra.

But are those assumptions valid? I don’t think an inability to solve quadratic equations should bring me or so many of my classmates to the brink of high-school dropout status.

Now I’ve finally dropped out, and I’m supporting myself through writing. Many students who are jobless and trying to get a college education after 20 years out of school are likewise stymied by math. I would love to learn more about art, philosophy, literature, and history in a college setting. But math requirements will prevent that.

Should they?

Javier Cabral is responsible for (formerly Teenage Glutster), a food, booze, music, and general desmadre blog. He is an in-house writer for Sonic Trace KCRW and freelances for Saveur Magazine and Grub Street LA. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.