On my very first day of high school, my calculus teacher had me take a pre-test to make sure I belonged in the class. I was the first freshman of that ridiculously excellent school’s history to be in calculus, which was entirely due to the INCREDIBLE program at the University of Minnesota, UMTYMP– if anyone you care about is a 10-12 year old in the greater Twin Cities area, I highly highly suggest checking out the program. The next night my parents were extremely concerned about me, as I was in tears over my calculus homework. I thought that I wasn’t good enough and that it was too hard for me, rather than that perhaps I was less prepared or mathematically mature than expected (see my post on whether we should do math at all for more thoughts in this direction). I still ended up rocking both years of AP calculus, and doing okay at Cal State Fullerton, where I took a few more math courses during my remaining years of high school.
It’s been over a decade since my first math tears, and about three years since my last ones- I struggled so much over integrals over contours in my complex analysis course, and definitely had tears spring to my eyes when I finally lugged myself over to the math tutor (incidentally, I had some beer with him over the summer at a conference and he is awesome) to ask about one particular problem. I was ridiculously heartened when he didn’t immediately spit out an answer, and told me that “the most important thing is to stay calm,” which kept me from nervous breakdowning at a total stranger. When handing back exams to my calculus students, I’ve definitely noticed a few hastily wiped tears and debated on commenting and potentially embarrassing them, or letting it go and feeling like a callous ass for the rest of the day. Now I tell them the story in the next paragraph.
A few months ago, after doing that mini-triathlon, I saw a groupon for Crossfit and thought I’d try out what I affectionately call the “cult.” I’ve mentioned before that I’m incredibly weak, and I’ve definitely noticed this during my crossfit classes- I’m an okay runner, but in terms of strength I’m last, and definitely lag behind the pregnant woman (who is a beast). Until yesterday I’ve been completely at peace with this, because I can tell I’m getting stronger and improving and feeling pretty good, even when the trainers have to set up separate stations for me because I can’t do a push up with good form. At my last session we had a coach I hadn’t met before who started us all with the same strength, and gave us a few minutes to fiddle with it and add more weight as needed. It is clear to me now that the burden was on me to speak up or simply do my thing and give myself less weight after trying out the initial condition, but I was too shy/ashamed to help myself do my best, and I ended up sabotaging myself and finishing my workout with many, many tears because I felt inadequate and incompetent. I’m glad that I finished, but the coach had to lessen my weight partway through and I did one less round than the other women.
The moral is that we aren’t all born with the same strengths. As my boyfriend said when comforting me that night, some of these women in this class have been playing sports since middle school, when I was doing Destination Imagination and Future Problem Solvers, or at least did athletics in high school, when I was playing clarinet in the marching band. And that’s OK. Those women will be lifting more than me, and I will be doing the best I can with what I have. Not everyone in my calculus section is going to be an A student- they never learned algebra and are working two jobs to support themselves through college, so don’t have the time to master algebra and pass their other actual classes. That’s OK. What’s important is that they finish the workout and give it the best they have. And tears are OK too, they happen to all of us.