Dented Buckeye, Sunny Window


I always know how I’ve done on a test, and I think I did perfectly well on the one I took this afternoon. Which is to say that I studied hard, did my best, and I think I passed. I actually kind of understood this section (sequences and series), but, ironically, was utterly confounded by a relatively easy test question involving a simple operation from a few chapters back.

There was a problem JUST like the one I bombed on on the practice exam (a few days before an exam, math prof always delivers a “practice exam” that’s quite ridiculously similar to the real thing). And I worked and understood the problem, but come test time, I blanked. Sigh.

Today I thought about why I blank on math tests. It’s not just anxiety. It’s that I lack the knowledge-framework to fully understand what I am doing, so I retain less and am prone to lose whole sections of knowledge. I don’t blank on other tests on other subjects because in other subjects, I employ less brute rote memorization and more reason and understanding. I can actually derive things, think things out, wander my way to a correct answer. I think I forget more math, retain less, and frequently blank because I simply lack the logical underpinnings that real understanding provides.

Bowing to my anxiety and discomfort, today before the test I asked math prof if there was a quiet, private place for me to take the test. I knew from talking to another student that he lets math-anxious students test separately. He kindly offered to let me take the test in his office, and I gratefully accepted. I feel odd doing this, but want to do what I must to test well.

And a quiet, private place really made a difference. Math prof’s small 3rd-floor office is fairly neat (for a college professor, a famously messy breed), with cheery aqua walls and a sunny window that looked out on trees. I feel silly asking for special treatment, but the fact remains that, for whatever reason, I now suffer from genuine test anxiety with math tests. My mind blanks and races, I can’t think clearly, and I can’t reason well. Sometimes I can’t do even the simplest problems. I don’t yet have enough perspective to know exactly why this happens (it never happened to me before this semester), but I imagine that I am just not any good at feeling stupid and helpless, and, faced with dreadful feelings of inadequacy, some part of me just kind of freaks out. It doesn’t speak well of me that I can’t accept my own inadequacy. What kind of idiot thinks she’s good at everything? Truly, the greatest lesson in overcoming perfectionism is learning that perfectionism springs from a sense of inadequacy. You’ll never be perfect, so for God’s sake get over yourself and work on not feeling inadequate instead. I don’t consciously feel inadequate, but down deep I know I am not quite over all the years I wasted before I began my college education in earnest.

And being overworked and stressed out about many other things in my life doesn’t help things, either.

So I hoped that if I had a quiet and private place to take my test in, I might be able to relax. I could reason out problems out loud to myself in funny accents (no idea why this helps, but it does, dead serious), get up and go get some fresh air, refill my water bottle from the fountain, take a bathroom break. Perhaps simply having more personal power and freedom at test time somehow reminds me that I am sensible and powerful after all, even though my equanimity deserts me at test time. My identity as an achiever deserts me.

So I took my test there by the sunny window, able to relax and think and reason. Math prof’s shelf of astronomy books was a pleasant distraction, as were his math cartoons, his rather endearing reading material (Creating a Meaningful Learning Experience) and his “I LOVE MY JOB, I’M A MATH TEACHER!” coffee mug. (Which couldn’t possibly have coffee in it because math prof is perversely healthy.)

He had a clear glass dish of buckeyes on his bookshelf with a little sign, lettered in black magic marker, that read FREE LUCK (carrying a buckeye is lucky!). I’ve been looking for a good luck charm, so I got up and got a buckeye and slipped it in my pocket.

The first one that came to hand, wonderfully smooth and shiny, had a big dent in its side. I almost put it back, but it ocurred to me that a dented buckeye as my math good luck charm was somehow appropriate — a defective charm for a defective student. This buckeye is dented, yet it is shiny and beautiful and maybe even lucky. This student is rather hopelessly unsuited for doing Calc II, but she is logical and sensible and quite ridiculously hard-working. Let them be with one another, the dented buckeye and the quiet woman who worked so hard and passed her test at last.

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