The memory still haunts me to this day: Standing paralyzed at the blackboard in Mr. Phelps's eighth-grade algebra class, I am lost. The equation looks like a Greek road map. I guess it leads to a number, but the correct answer turns out to be a letter. The class laughs. I hate math.

Kids today need not have this fear, although many still do, according to Mary Johnson, who is no old-fashioned math teacher like Phelps was. In fact, her private classroom is just where a kid would appreciate it most: in a shopping mall, the Melwood Mall in Upper Marlboro, to be exact.

Johnson calls her program "math in the mall," and says that while parents shop for school clothes, the kids can be shuffled off to learn more about what it takes to earn a good living.

"We're located next door to a well-known hat shop," Johnson said. "Parents and children stop by to browse, notice us at work in our classroom and somehow math studies do not seem so ominous under the circumstances."

Nevertheless, math remains one of the most important courses that can be offered.

"Math is the key to the mastery of almost every subject," said Johnson, a mathematician who is an instruction development specialist for the D.C. public schools.

"The knowledge of math will determine to a large extent what a student's life choices will be."

According to a one-year national study by the Washington research firm Pelavin and Associates, black and Hispanic students who take at least one year of high school geometry vastly improve their chances of getting into college.

In fact, their chances become as good as white students', according to a study of almost 16,000 students.

"We therefore recommend that schools consider the strategy of requiring mastery of algebra and geometry of all students and that schools develop a plan to encourage college aspirations in all students," authors Sol H. Pelavin and Michael Kane concluded.

Johnson has found a way to solve that problem.

Her math center is a perfect complement to public school instruction. She offers what she calls a "diagnostic prescriptive approach" to teaching math. Students are tested to find out the nature of their inabililty to solve math problems, then receive specialized instruction to deal with it.

The diagnosis costs $45. Each hourly instructional session costs $15. But the results make it a bargain.

Many students who were failing math midway through their school year attended the math center for only a few weeks and finished the year with above average grades, she noted.

"If a student has a very serious problem and requires more time, we provide it at no extra charge," Johnson said.

Parents have expressed much satisfaction with the program. Student self-confidence has soared.

"When a student comes to us having made D's and E's for the second semester, but finishes the year with A's and B's, you're talking revolutionary improvement," Johnson said.

Major breakthroughs have been made in how math should be taught, Johnson said. But unfortunately, these improvements have yet to be incorporated in regular school education.

The math center opened in the mall last January. Classes are held from 6 to 9 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays. Ten to 15 students are enrolled in each class.

Johnson said that she and her staff of math teachers are able to establish a rapport with the students that is hard to match in larger, public school classrooms. But her approach would be well worth emulating.

"Once a student tastes the fruits of success, watch out," Johnson said. "Most students come to the program with a history of failure or mediocrity in math, and they think that they just can't do it. But the problem is not the students. It's the way math is taught."

Department of Education statistics about high school students, which were used in the Pelavin study, indicate that geometry is taken by roughly 40 percent of white students, 19 percent of blacks and 17 percent of Hispanics.

Math courses were found to have a stronger relationship to college enrollment and completion than courses in laboratory sciences or foreign languages, according to the study.

"I think we're looking at something that is more basic than those other courses," Pelavin said. "The logical-thinking skills taught in algebra and geometry are some of the basic skills needed in college."

And, as Johnson would agree, in life as well.