I really don’t like math. It’s absolutely terrifying: as soon as an Excel spreadsheet opens, the tears appear. I’ve cried in front of professors about it, and it never becomes less mortifying. I’ve tried to deal with my math phobia over the years by going to tutoring, asking friends for help, going to therapy, and spending hours banging my head against a wall. But more often than not, at the end of the day, I’m still really scared of math.
As a Princeton student, I find it almost jarring to be so scared of (and so bad at) a subject. Most of us came to college with straight A’s. We’d never been “bad” at something before, and the first B is a shock to everyone. But in my case, the mere prospect of a B isn’t what is terrifying — it truly is the notion of failing a class.
I see my GPA flash before my very eyes every time I enter my QR class. A dear friend offered to help me with my homework — but 20 minutes in, I was having something resembling a panic attack. He couldn’t understand why I was so upset. “I feel like you’ve just seen me stripped of my dignity,” I responded. “I feel like you’ve just seen me be bad at math.”
This “math panic,” as I’ve called it, has given me great insight into how others struggle with other subjects. Things that come to me naturally — learning languages and writing essays, for example — are what many on campus struggle with. I confided to my friend that I’d rather write a 10-page paper than do a single problem set. He couldn’t believe his ears: he’d rather do 10 problem sets than a single paper. “I’m so bad at papers,” he said. “They terrify me.” It turns out that his Literature and the Arts (LA) distribution requirement was the hardest class he’d ever taken.
This was, in a way, reassuring: my friend isn’t dumb. Writing papers just isn’t his strength. What’s “easy” for me is hard for him — and the same is true in reverse. Math just isn’t my strength.
When he confided in me regarding how much he struggled to write papers, it hit me that “easy” is a relative term. This is, in part, the beauty of distribution requirements: they remind us that we aren’t good at everything, and that each student on this campus has a distinct set of strengths. The requirements are an exercise in humility. But, by the same token, these requirements can send some of us into cycles of self-loathing and anxiety, especially when the tutors, preceptors, and friends who try to help us dismiss the assignments we find so difficult as “easy.”
Over the summer, some friends on a hiking trip kept telling me how “easy” the climb would be; I was winded and nauseated by the time we reached the top. I’m perhaps as unathletic as they come: my friends joke about how rarely I go to the gym. But they’re athletic — so the hike was relatively easy for them. The more they said how “easy” it was, the worse I felt. I was near tears almost the whole way down because I felt as if they didn’t understand just how much I was struggling. What was easy for them wasn’t easy for me — hiking, in this case — but it easily could have been a Quantitive Reasoning class, an LA distribution requirement, or a writing seminar.
We’re all intelligent human beings here. Everyone has something they find easy. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to someone else. Any time that someone tells me how simple math is, I am brought back to all of the panic attacks I’ve had when faced with a series of numbers.
“If it’s so easy,” I think, “does that mean that I’m dumb?” No, it doesn’t. It means that math is not my strength. I’m confident that most people who meet me don’t think I’m stupid — so why would they assume I’d find math “hard?”
Pay attention to your words. What do you call easy? And who are the people around you? Consider that they might not be as good at math, languages, or hiking as you — and that they might, in fact, consider these things very hard. Everyone on campus — and in the world, actually — is best suited to different endeavors. But it doesn’t mean that all endeavors are easy, or that these people are dumb.
Leora Eisenberg is a senior from Eagan, M.N. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.