A First Year’s Mathematical Errors

Reflecting on my first year, I remember best the innumerable mistakes I made. Not the times I felt proud of myself, but the times I felt ashamed of myself. This story is inspired by one of my freshman mistakes. I want to share this story in the hope that an individual or two is reminded that mistakes don’t take away the ineffable magic of your self-worth.

Coming to Swarthmore, I didn’t know what to major in nor what my strengths were. I had heard from the many opinions on the internet and from my community back home that computer science is the most practical college major since it is the one most likely to pay a high salary out of college. I had tried programming before, but I didn’t like it. Still, I believed majoring in it would definitely land me a high-paying job right after graduation. And to do that, I’d need to start taking the required math courses, beginning with Math 15.

Honestly, I thought that math in college would be a different kind of math. Maybe it was an evolved level of math purified by academic research, able to coax even self-proclaimed non-math students like me into enjoying the previously concealed nuances of mathematics. Maybe college math, such as the Math 15 course I was going to take at Swarthmore, could make me love math. Maybe.

What follows is a recount of an insightful midnight walk I had at the end of my first year. I thought I was just getting fresh air to clear my troubled mind, but I ended up fully acknowledging my unconscious feelings about continuing mathematics at Swarthmore. This is what led me to act upon these feelings rather than flat out ignoring them.

Freshman Spring. May 3. Standing Still at Singer. Thinking of Math 15. 

(My favorite time of day, cloaked in shadow around every lamp and warmed by the peaceful winds of solitude. Tonight, instead of doing my readings for two of my classes, I’ve decided to wander the campus in search of peace for my stressed mind. And here I stop walking, seeing a massive building defined by glass panels soaking up the full moon’s rays. Its sleek, button-activated doors invite me inside. I make the mistake of staring at the same spot on one of Singer’s windows for too long; now I’m swept into a nebula of memories and begin to reflect on my journey at Swarthmore.) 

 The first memory instantly came into focus. It was my freshman fall at the tail end of August, and I was stepping into the world of college mathematics. I remember rushing through Singer’s front door and going down two sets of stairs to enter Singer through its side entrance. After scrambling down the last interior set of stairs onto the ground level, I arrived at my Math 15 classroom in record time; it began at 11:30 a.m. and I was already in my seat at 11:25 a.m. I was the perfect student in my mind, obeying the high bars and steel standards that demanded I get to everything early. But by the time I stepped out of my last ever Math 15 class, I felt utterly defeated.

 I had hated working with math for as long as I remember, and somehow, my first college mathematics course didn’t change that. When in my assigned group to work on the textbook exercises, I was mostly repeating “I don’t enjoy doing this” in my mind, while my partners were talking about how to graph a limit or other math stuff. At the end of this semester, I felt a little ashamed of myself. Still, I believed I just needed to push myself more so that I could one day like working with math and then get comfortable with it. 

(Suddenly, I shake my head vigorously from side to side. My mind warns me “to not get paralyzed in my regret.” Now with my sense anchored in the real world, I turn towards the Science Center. “I want a night coffee,” I think. Almost in response, my eyes notice that the moon above illuminates the gravel path headed towards my left more brightly than it does Singer’s windows. I take it as the world’s encouragement to walk on that path.)

Freshman Spring. May 3. Gazing in a Daze at the Science Center. Math 25, Where I Ended My Math Dream.

(On another gravel path, I trek towards the seemingly everlasting lights of the Science Center glinting in the distance. Pebbles roll away from me with every step, until the sharp sounds of the gravel spheres dropping off the path gently come to an end in front of the Science Center’s array of glass windows.

 As I ponder whether or not to get a chai latte from the Cafe, light rain begins to fall upon the courtyard outside of the Science Center’s main entrance. Yet, I don’t seek shelter. The winds of the quiet night and the synchronous “pik, pik, pik” of a million drops of water bouncing on the pavement whisk my thoughts into another memory.) 

Things are coming into focus. I imagine a silent film playing on the windows of the Science Center. I see the long computer science corridor on the second floor of the Science Center straight ahead. The camera moves away from that cursed corridor (at least for me, but that’s a story for another day) and to the right, zooming in on the window adjacent to the first door to the right. Now it’s looking into the classroom. And I’m thinking about the Math 25 class I had there for half of the spring semester. 

 In the first week of that spring semester, I was constantly telling myself how much I dreaded my decision to keep working with math, specifically calculus. We were learning how to add fractional derivatives in class. On a particular Wednesday, every student was placed in a group of two-to-three students for a group quiz. And I didn’t, or couldn’t, contribute anything. As the quiz was handed in, I thought, “It’s the middle of the semester and I haven’t changed. I still hate working with math. I’ve never had the motivation to sit down and do extra practice problems to become comfortable with adding fractional derivatives. Or watch my professor crowd all four blackboards in the classroom with stacks of integral signs and a growing flood of variables … Simply put, I think there’s nothing I can change about the fact that I’m fucking useless.”

The tipping point towards me withdrawing from Math 25 was being given back the group quiz the following Monday. “We,” as in the paper with all three of our names across the top, got a perfect score. The other two seemed happy and moved on, but I couldn’t. A tsunami of gigantic shame slammed down upon my heart’s veiny, velvet shore and slammed it so hard, insecurity began bleeding out. I thought, “I don’t deserve this grade … I did nothing. How can I let myself feel good about myself now?” And half an hour later, I left that classroom shrouded by imposter syndrome and convinced that I was going to be expelled from Swarthmore.

(My thoughts dance across the Science Center’s paned windows like a kaleidoscope of glinting memories for what seems like an hour. The word “expelled” racing across my mental processors stirs my consciousness; a sudden gale of wind rushes towards my lungs as I inhale deeply. And suddenly, I realize how wet my clothes are as a real gale of wind in partnership with the incessant light rain forces a shiver out of me from head to toe. I abruptly turn around, and with my arms crossed over the front of my soaking shirt, sprint in the direction of my dorm’s enduring dryness. “Pik, pik, pik … pik …” and rolling pebbles are the last witnesses to the shadows eating my back, a figure running away into the rain.)

Comments From Now About Then

Reading my story again, I’m glad, though it was probably impossible to think this way then, that I gave myself alone time that rainy night. It was what I needed to process and finally accept that my feelings and thoughts about math were valid.

It took an apprehensive couple of weeks to work up enough courage and forgiveness for me to allow myself to withdraw from Math 25, the class I needed to fulfill my dream of the fabled computer science degree.

I believed in my heated stupor that evening that I would receive a notice of expulsion from the college in an email. It didn’t come to pass. 

I felt like there was no one on campus who could help me avoid expulsion. In my mind, expulsion was the indisputable consequence from the college for deciding to switch your academic track completely. No one who understood the nitty-gritty details of college stuff like this and could prove to me my fear would not come to pass. No one who could advise me on what I should, or rather, could, do to “legally” sail myself in another direction.

I was lucky that I found someone who could help me.

They didn’t look down on me for spewing a rainstorm of my insecurities on them. They didn’t blame me for not knowing stuff that I thought I should have known as a college student. 

But most importantly, they began to introduce to me the concept of self-forgiveness. I gradually understood that I didn’t need to hate myself for not being perfect, sticking to every step of the plan without error. What I began to realize was that I could choose to forgive myself for making mistakes instead.

They knew what it was like to grow up with parents who weren’t taught that it was both okay and a good thing to forgive yourself for making mistakes. 

I believe now that your college major doesn’t determine whether or not you can find a good living after college. It is a factor just like luck, but the most influential variable is the amount of work you put into growing throughout your professional career, wherever it takes you.

And I am glad that sophomore me is here writing this story, still enrolled as a Swarthmore student. 

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