On Arrogance and Algebra
One of two things was going to happen in the next couple of minutes. I was going to pass out and fall out of my chair, or I was going to throw up all over the desk and the test paper in front of me. Half of the homework I had turned in so far had been slightly crumpled by toddler hands or decorated with crayon scribbles. I had asked dumb questions in class that everyone else seemed to know. I couldn’t sleep the previous night because of compulsive studying. And now I was going to get sick one way or another, mortified in front of all these teenage and 20-something classmates, and Dr. Capps and Jeanette and Robin and everyone else encouraging me at Nash Community College were going to be disappointed, because they were going to see that I was too old, too worn out, and too distracted to start over. I’d exit my second college attempt ingloriously, either via a stretcher or on a cloud of embarrassment.
I’d never experienced test anxiety before. School was incredibly easy for me from Kindergarten through the end of my freshman year of college. That had actually been the problem – I had been bored and, I will admit it now, conceited about my academic ability. I didn’t appreciate what my teachers were trying to offer me, because I didn’t think I needed it. And before my sophomore year of college began, I dropped out. I didn’t need a piece of paper to prove anything to anybody.
People tried to tell me I was wrong, but it was life that smacked the arrogance out of me. Turned out I did need a piece of paper – not for the sake of the paper, but to prove I had the determination, the flexibility of thinking, the respect for authority, and the years of practice applying math and writing and teamwork and research and who-knows-how-many-other skills that go along with pursuit of a college degree. So seven years, two lay-offs, and a child later, I showed up at Nash Community College – completely lost, insecure, and scared to death that I’d never be able to give my child the economic security in life that he deserved to have.
Some kind folks in enrollment took me in, walked me through the application, helped me with the transcript requirements, and explained financial aid – all in time to sign up for classes that were starting in less than a week. I had the great fortune to end up in Robin’s hands, and she helped me figure out a class schedule that worked with my crazy minimum-wage job and mommy schedules. I knew I had to move quickly, because there was no guarantee that I would be able to afford school from one day to the next.
I left orientation pumped up and looking forward to starting classes. Except for College Algebra, which Robin had recommended and I was dreading. I thought she had a higher-than-deserved estimate of my potential, but Robin connected me with tutoring before class even started, assuring me that all I needed was someone to encourage me and help me remember all of the little things I had forgotten over the years. Jeanette was my tutor, and she believed in my ability so much that letting her down was not an option. Dr. Capps was my instructor. On the first day of class he BLEW MY MIND by showing that math was a man-made system, not some cloudy religion with strange followers and cryptic rituals, and that if I just followed the rules, I’d get the same answer as everyone else. All of a sudden, and for the first time, math seemed doable.
Right up ‘til the first test – and, just my luck, the algebra test ended up being the very first test of my very first semester of my very first year back in school. All my confidence flew right out the window, and I stared at the paper with a blank mind and a sick stomach. Finally I figured that I had to do something, even if it was wrong….so I dredged the quadratic formula up from somewhere deep in my skull and proceeded to plug numbers from every single problem into it, whether I was supposed to or not.
Taking action cleared my anxiety out of the way about halfway through the test. Something clicked, and at the bottom of the first page I remembered something other than the quadratic formula – something that actually applied. I went back and reworked the entire page of problems. (It turned out that only one of them actually needed that formula.) I had never been the last one to finish a test before – watching everyone walk out while I sat and struggled was a new experience for me, and I was tempted to give up and go out anyway, to save my pride, if not my grade. Dr. Capps, God bless him, encouraged me to stay past the end of class and take as much time as I needed to finish…so I did.
I passed the test. I could not believe it. I had done a lot in my life, even won a few awards, but I had never felt the sense of accomplishment that came when that paper came back to me with a big ol’ fat A across the corner of it. I nearly cried when I showed it around the tutoring office. I’m about to cry thinking about it now. For the first time I had bothered to put everything I had into a school assignment – and found out that my all was enough. That test taught me way more than math, way more than a handful of formulas and the order of operations – it taught me to move through fear, to value knowledge over pride, to understand that my teachers could help me find the answers to questions I didn’t even know enough to ask if I just opened up with humility and let them teach me. I let go of arrogance and embraced algebra.
And for the next four years, while I completed my Associate’s at Nash and then my Bachelor’s at Meredith, I let myself be the last one to walk out of the door for any test I took.
Contributed by: Jenny Braswell, NCC Alumnus, NCC Grant Coordinator/Principal Investigator