There’s a catfight going on inside my head, and I can only blame college algebra.

I think of my brain hemispheres as having entirely different personalities. I picture my right brain—the creative part of me—as a plump, well-groomed woman with luxurious hair and handmade jewelry. She’s happy. I call her Jezebel.

My logical left brain, on the other hand, is stunted and crabby. I call her Agnes. I drag her out once every month to help me pay my household bills, but the rest of the time, she sleeps on a hard mattress on the floor of my brain. I’ll admit, I neglect her.

Creative Jezebel gets me through my week. I’ve cultivated her through the years by being a writer, singer, artist and philosopher–all good, right brain pursuits. She’s bold. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was Jezebel who made the appointment for me to take the college math placement test.

Before I can take a college math class, which Jezebel believes will open up some interesting life opportunities for me, the college wants to know exactly where I am on the continuum of math wisdom, which ranges from Inexcusably Dense to Absolutely Einstein.

So I find myself sitting in front of the testing computer, which has an on-screen calculator. I look at the sample question, which has numbers AND letters AND parentheses–and my brain hemispheres start their battle.

“Give me a hand here!” I can hear Jezebel Right-Brain screaming at Agnes-The-Left. “Remember equations? Get up and tell me how to do this problem.”

And I can hear Agnes grumble: “I’m tired. I barely remember anything. Just guesstimate.”

Because one can only get so much out of a tired, old left-brain, I try to rule out the obviously wrong multiple choices and just plain guess at what’s left. Thirty minutes later, I’m drinking coffee in the cafeteria waiting to learn my academic fate. It’s a short wait.

The counselor tells me I’ve gotten six of the twenty questions right, sparing me from “Mathematics 001,” which probably starts with “What is a Number?” and tops out with “Long Division Is Our Friend.” I am placed in Mathematics 002. I’m embarrassed, but the counselor says, “Oh, we often see this in people returning to school later in life. We don’t retain algebra.”

I retain coupons for redemption. I retain water. But I have not retained algebra.

The class I need is not offered on the internet, because they believe people with my level of math understanding need an adult to supervise their use of sharp pencils. But I’ve applied for the student loan now, so I have to register.

If I can pass Math For People Who Return to School Later in Life 002, I’ll be eligible to take “pre-algebra.” And if I can get out of that one alive, I’ll be (theoretically) equipped to pass freshman-level College Algebra, and then College Mathematics. After that? Success, happiness, wealth, stardom—or whatever Jezebel had in mind when she got me into this.

The experience will be good for my brain, too. It means I’ll have to exercise my left brain every day—just a slow walk around the block for the first class, but by the time I get to College Math, Agnes should be lifting weights and running marathons.

Over time, my left brain will become as confident as her next-hemisphere neighbor. Agnes and Jezebel will be buddies.

And someday, with their help, I’ll have the math skill necessary to calculate the interest on my student loan.

Hi Kimberley,

The progression should be (1) Pre-Algebra, (2) Beginning or Elementary Algebra, (3) Intermediate Algebra, and then (4) Either College Algebra, or Pre-Calculus.

You might be able to skip Pre-Algebra but as you described your encounter with the placement testing, you may need this course.

There is no specific course called, “College Math”. If your college mentions this or suggests it to be a course, you should ask for clarification. College Mathematics would be any course of Math higher than Intermediate Algebra. There are several courses which are College Math; they are College Algebra, Pre-Calculus, Trigonometry, Calculus 1,2,3,4, Differential Equations, Statistics, Linear Algebra, … and other possible courses.

As I say, ask your college to explain what they mean.

Also, in case you need to start at Pre-Algebra, it is probably a good course. Its purpose is to make Beginning Algebra easier to study when you reach it.