Faith and My Fear of Math

The following is a true story in my life and is dedicated to a bright young friend who also has a fear of math . . .

On entering state college, I had two GREAT fears–the fear of math and the fear of learning a foreign language, but my fear of math by far surpassed the other.  In high school, I did terrible in all my math classes.  Solving problems in front of the class on the blackboard was a constant source of embarrassment and humiliation. I had not been raised to think in terms of excelling academically; my father was a hard-working gray iron foundry man, and my mother was a secretary.

After accepting Jesus into my heart, I was convinced the Lord wanted me to go to college.  I attended two colleges before my final and third college.  At the first college I met my wonderful wife; a profound gift from God!  At the second college I met an exceptional brother in the Lord who became a lifelong friend.  But at my third college, I had to face my fears as I entered the sciences.

My major required that I take a quarter of advanced algebra/trigonometry and two quarters of calculus.  That was a terrifying thought to me, but after coming to know Jesus, my confidence was in the Him and not in myself.  Since I had not had math for so long, I was required to take two remedial (refresher) courses in algebra and trigonometry.  As I prayerfully and fearfully approached that first course, I was surprised to discover the algebraic equations I had to solve had become like little puzzles, little games to solve. And to my shock, I started having fun with math!

In both remedial courses, I received an “A,” but as so often happens in a life of faith, I hit a roadblock.  The next math course that counted towards my major was advanced algebra and trigonometry. The problem was that in my last remedial math course, we never got to the part on trigonometry, and 80 percent of this class was focused on advanced trigonometry, and I had also never taken it in high school!  After an incredible struggle of trying to catch up, I ended up with a “D” for the course, but I needed a “C” to go on to calculus for my major.  I prayed, “Lord, what do I do now?? I can’t go on any further with my major!”  The Lord seemed to quietly say to my heart, “Trust me.”

Later I went to the administration building to sign up for my classes for the next quarter.  I didn’t know what to do about my “D” and taking calculus.  The registrar signed me up for my other classes and then pulled out a copy of the students’ grades from the advanced algebra/trigonometry class.  Placing the paper on the table, she ran her finger down through the names, stopping at mine.  I felt sick and embarrassed. She turns to me and says, “Looks like a “C” to me” and entered my name for calculus!

This was back in the days before good copiers, and what she had was a copy of a copy of a copy, each worse than the last. I looked down at the copy and was astonished to see next to my name a crease from one of the copies right through my letter grade.  The “D” really did look like a “C”!  And before I could do anything, she handed me my approved class schedule and started helping the next person!  Well, that quarter I got a “C” in calculus.  In my second quarter of calculus, I got a “B.”  And who knows, had I taken a third quarter, I might have gotten an “A.”  (Chuckle.)

So where did the math lead me after college?  I ended up as an environmental chemist at our main environmental state laboratory for fourteen years.  Lots of math and statistics there.  Later, a friend of my wife asked me if I would teach a Business Math course at a local community college.  I did, and loved it!  After that, I studied and passed all five Amateur Radio licensing exams that involved a lot of electronic circuit and radio transmission calculations for both analog and digital.  And at my last job in our state division of air pollution control, I used a database of jet engine efficiencies from Paris, France, combined with the same mathematical model used by NASA in the space program to calculate our state’s first ever emission inventory for all the aircraft in our state.

Looking back on my life, I see that God has this way of taking our fears and weaknesses and AMAZING us . . . but only if we trust Him . . . and only if we let Him.

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.  Seek his will in all you do, and he will direct your paths.” –Proverbs 3:5-6  (NLT)

Copyright (c) 2010 by William D. (Nick) Nichols

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