The first time I failed a math test was in seventh grade. I remember staring at the 69 scrawled across the top of the exam in red pen and not believing my eyes. At the bottom of the page, my teacher had written, "Tutoring is on Mondays from 3:30 to 4:30 after school." I think that was the most humiliating part. Of course I didn't need tutoring! I was on the math team, for God's sake. I stuffed my test into my backpack before anyone could see my score and spent the rest of class blinking back stinging tears.
During recess that day, my friends casually discussed their math scores. They laughed about how easy it was, and I laughed along with them, the shame pooling in my stomach. Looking at their expectant eyes, I knew that they thought that I had aced the test as well. As far as they knew, I had never struggled with the subject before.
That day marked the beginning of my lengthy battle with math, which left me scarred with anxiety and filled with self-doubt over my academic abilities.
Excelling at math was always kind of an unspoken expectation in my Asian-American family. My dad minored in math during college before coming to the United States to complete his graduate degree in nuclear science. He spent his Saturdays coaching me in algebra and geometry, trying to get me ahead of my class, but he couldn't care less about how I was performing in my history class. When I didn't test into seventh grade algebra with the rest of my peers, he personally went to the school principal to plead on my behalf.
Because of how much effort and emphasis my parents placed on doing well in math, I was always hesitant to ask them for help when I struggled with the subject. It also didn't help that my younger brother and closest friends were all natural pros with numbers. It seemed like math was the only road to success and everyone was on it except for me.
Because I was too proud (and scared of revealing my failures) to ask for help with math, I bottled up and compressed that anxiety. Every "A" I received on a test was a small victory, but every bad grade was just another reminder that I was never going to be as good as my brother or my friends. It was always an uphill battle.
Ironically, the first time I called myself a writer was also in seventh grade. I wrote a story on a whim and posted it online, thinking nothing of it. To my surprise, comments flooded in, asking for more. As I continued to write, I started filling in the holes that math had left in my self-esteem with the kind words of strangers.
In tenth grade, I had a panic attack outside my AP Calculus teacher's classroom. I had just failed my first math test since seventh grade, and I couldn't stand the pressure anymore. I started sobbing and gasping for breath as soon as I left the room. My Latin teacher saw me and gave me a big hug, sympathetically telling me, "Whatever's making you feel this way, it's going to go away eventually." At the time, I truly didn't believe her.
Even after that experience, I couldn't accept my inability to excel in math. I did summer research projects related to biology and genetics, something I had little to no interest in. I pulled long hours, rereading my physics textbook over and over again. I participated in science competitions, even though I never really understood what was going on in them.
Throughout all of this, I wrote. I kept a journal. I posted angst-filled poems online. I did some freelance work during my last two years of high school. I wrote, and I could breathe because of it.
It wasn't until college application season came that I surrendered my lengthy battle with math. The truth was that I just wasn't good at it, no matter how much I wanted to be and how much everyone around me expected me to be. I had to work three times as hard as the rest of my peers to get the same grades. I was exhausted. I told my parents I wanted to go to journalism school, and that was that. It was over.
Most of my high school friends are planning to go into STEM fields after graduation. They ask me how journalism is coming along when we meet, as if it's a hobby I'm pursuing rather than a legitimate career option. However, it didn't really matter to me anymore because for the first time, I studied something for myself.
I found out that expectations are only expectations if I let them be. Once internalized, they become shackles that can hold you prisoner. But once I stopped filling myself up with others' expectations for me and focused on my own, I gradually became less insecure and anxious. Perhaps I will never make as much money as my peers in the STEM fields, but it's a small price to pay for reclaiming myself.
This past March, Fareed Zakaria wrote a column for the Washington Post about the dangers of America's obsession with STEM education. In the article, he argues the reason why America has led the world in technology and innovation for so many decades is precisely because liberal arts curriculums taught students how to think creatively when solving problems. If there is more emphasis placed on STEM subjects in school, we run the risk of pressuring highly creative students who flourish in the humanities to conform to majors and careers they do not enjoy, nor excel at. I was lucky that I recognized my strengths and passions before it was too late, but there are still many young students who are being told that they have to major in biology or engineering because STEM fields are just more respected overall.
Yesterday, I did math problems for my parents, my teachers and my friends because I wanted to be who I thought they wanted me to be. Today, I write for myself because I want to breathe.
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