I see my friend Megan every Wednesday. I’m her relief in the college computer lab where we both work. (Yes, I know I am a freelance writer. I just had this great idea this past summer that if I worked in the college computer lab — it’s just a mind-the-store job where I can write while I’m there — I’d be forced to spend less time in the math lab, and thereby I’d have to spend more time writing [and making money] than doing math. Math wants to take over my life, and I do what I can to stop it. But with this idea I just ended up sacrificing my ability to work when and where I like — a trade-off that ultimately wasn’t worth it. Live and learn.)
So I see my young friend every Wednesday, and I always ask her how her physics class is going. She’s a college student, just like me (only she’s 15 years younger). And from her tales of woe every Wednesday, clearly her semester is not going all that well.
Megan is one of the more interesting characters at the college. She’s in her early twenties, and is one of the most physically attractive women I know: tall and leggy with long brown hair, a fit and beautiful body. With her gorgeous brown skin and merry nature, she always reminds me of the “brown colleen” from a “boran green” from “The Star of the County Down.” She is also one of the biggest nerds I know, with a real gift for both math and chemistry. She’s made straight A’s in math through Calc II, and I don’t think she’s ever made a B in anything before. Homeschooled most of her young life, she is tomboyish, devoutly Christian, and politically conservative. You can’t help but like her because of her lovably goofy, happy-go-lucky nature.
And her news in Physics is never good. I am making my first C this semester, and Meg is making her first B. The first B of her life will be in General Physics I, a calculus-based physics class that’s usually taken by people headed for careers in science and engineering. Because of her “low” grade of B and her constant frustration over not being able to follow the material, she asked her mother if she could drop the class. (LOL yes she still lives at home.) I can’t bring myself to chide her for that, as I remember my first B, and how saddened I was to lose my cherished 4.0 GPA, now long gone. (Damn you, math!)
Today she seemed accepting of her grade, but sad and confused. She clearly just doesn’t get physics. She gets math, and she gets chemistry, but she doesn’t get physics. She says she understands the math pieces of the class, but her understanding falls apart when she is faced with other ways of viewing a problem. She’s frustrated but resigned to her fate, and her mom eventually talked some sense into her. She’s keeping her B and not dropping the class.
I lounged in the doorway, leaning my face against the jamb as I talked to her. Oh Meg, in our struggles we are one! “Do you think,” I said, “that maybe you are just, for the first time, doing something that you are really not any good at?”
And she screwed up her face in the childlike way she has, her brow furrowing deeply, and said that yes, that was probably it. And it probably is. Meg has found her edge, the place where she, a high-achieving young woman who takes real pride in her excellent grades, stops being the person she always thought she was. And starts being someone who makes a B, who makes C’s on tests, who doesn’t always follow the lecture. Someone who can’t do something well that she expected to do well.
Which is probably all that’s happening to me in Calc II. I made an A in Calc I and liked the class quite a lot. I’m still the same person I was then (two summers ago), and my Calc II teacher is harder, but not that much harder. I’m just facing, for the first time, a part of my life as a student where I really am exceptionally bad rather than exceptionally good.
I’m not even unexceptional anymore. I am overtly rotten. If you’re used to being exceptionally good at being a student, this hurts. It’s not so much hard to admit (Meg and I may be proud of our student work, but we are neither of us unwilling to accept our weaknesses) as it is hard to figure out. Why am I so bad at this? Is it that I don’t have enough time for homework? That I rush through homework? That I need a vacation? All these things are true, but they’re only a small part of the problem. Mostly, just like Megan, I am just not very good at what I am doing.
For much of my daily life, I sit in a small room doing very hard work, work that I don’t do very well and don’t have the time or inclination to enjoy. I rush through it all, with barely enough time to get it done. I must then submit my work to someone who is an expert at the selfsame subject at which I am quite awful. He goes though my work ruthlessly, marking every error he can find. And for every error he finds, a little bit is knocked off my final score.
Every few weeks I must sit with my classmates and have my knowledge level assessed. This is done with no assistance, not even when the simplest answer to the simplest question would unlock an entire problem. I cannot look in my textbook for help, nor get any other help at all from any source. It is just me and some paper and a pencil and a calculator. Because I am slow and unskilled, my work is taken from me even before I am properly done with it, without regard for how much better my grade would be if I were only given the time I need. And then the expert again ticks off my errors.
This Kafkaesque setup is what it feels like to take a semester’s worth of something you have to take but have no skill in. I can do math, yes. But I am not fluid with it. If math was a dance, my movements would be jerky and arrythmic where others are graceful and sure. If math was a journey, mine would be lonely and wet and rocky and endless, while others stayed in warm hotels and flew in chartered jets. If math ability was clothing, others would wear designer suits while I came to class wearing only a dirty sweatsock and a broken banana clip.
This is one of the things that nobody tells you about college. Not how hard it is going to be, but that quite possibly you will have to bang your head for months on end against something that you are quite absolutely bad at. I know some people never go through this mill — like people who love math, study math, and become mathematicians. People who love literature, study literature, become English professors. People who love nursing, study nursing, and become nurses. But what about my friend who wants to be a doctor, and has to take math courses that she’s no good at? What about me, a wannabe science writer, who’s got to take — and wants to take — the math that comes with any science degree?
I’m not saying that academia should change, or that chemistry majors should take less math. God, no. I just wish that I had had some inkling, before this all started, of how odd and hard and lonely and taxing my journey down the yellow brick road was going to be. I never knew how bad I’d be at things that matter so much. That I love so much. That would hurt me so badly to do poorly in.