What a Community College Math Class Taught Me About Fear

This past summer I, along with thousands of other college students, gave up our summer vacations to take classes. I plan to cross the stage in December decked out in a cap and gown, so sitting in a classroom while others hit the beach was pretty much mandatory.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be taking exciting, thought-provoking classes in sociology or women’s studies. Instead, I was enrolled in Liberal Arts Math at my local community college since the drive is short and the tuition is cheaper. Now for those who don’t know me very well, math was the the bane of my existence. Sure I love to count how much money I have, but that’s as far as my relationship went with mathematics.

In elementary school, however, I found it to be quite a breeze.

Jimmy bought 9 pounds of candy and Susan bought 4 pounds of candy. If they decided to share their candy, how many pounds of candy would they have?

Thirteen! See? So easy.

It threw me off a bit when it came time for multiplication, but overall I did well. Things between math and I really became complicated once I reached middle school and they decided to throw letters into the mix. I mean, how many times have your parents found that they needed algebra? 

The struggle got real when the one and only time I had to go to summer school, was after failing a semester of algebra in high school. Let’s just say I was pissed, for lack of better term.

“If y’all had done your work the first time, you wouldn’t be here,” I remember the summer school teacher saying.

Her words angered me, especially because I felt that a lack of effort wasn’t the reason for falling short. After that summer, math became more than a subject I hated. It became a fear because I associated it with failure.

Fears are such a pesky thing. As a kid, you could liken me to Chuckie from The Rugrats since I was always afraid of something. I would even flip out and run away when the Gushers commercials came on and the children’s heads turned into fruit. I wanted no part in enjoying a fruit snack that turned my head into a pineapple. No sir.

In some cases I’d overcome my fears, like conquering riding a bike without training wheels; and other times I just accepted certain fears and went on with life. One of those certain fears was math.

So on the first day of Liberal Arts Math, I showed up with an overpriced textbook and a grimace no catcaller would dare approach. My mind paced from how much I didn’t want to be there to a meeting I had with my academic advisor just a few weeks ago.

“I see you haven’t fulfilled your math requirement yet. You’re trying to graduate in December, right?” she said.

“Yeah, heh-heh… I’m working on it,” I replied. 

“Why did you put it off for so long?”

“I mean I just don’t like math. And I can’t pass the math placement exam no matter how many times I take it.”

My advisor made a face that either portrayed concern, or puzzlement, or both and finally said, “Well maybe you have a math disability.”

Disability. The thought still echoed in my head in that class. It was bad enough that I loathed math, but for it to possibly be something that I could never pass scared me. In the midst of my worry, in walks my professor who I’ll call Mrs L- a bubbly short haired brunette with glasses and a Hungarian accent. She greeted the class with so much energy. All I could say to myself was “It is way too early for this.”

“So are you excited for math?” Mrs. L cheerfully asked.

It took me a moment to realize she was talking directly to me. After being caught off guard in a daze I awkwardly replied, “Um. Yeah.”

May God forgive me for that blatant lie.

She then asked the class who loved math. No hands were raised. Mrs. L looked shocked for some reason, but then said something that will resonate with me forever.

“So many people hate math. You know why? Because it’s hard. That’s ridiculous. You shouldn’t hate something because you have to work hard at it.”

It was as if a light bulb went off in my head.

Math was the one subject that never came naturally to me. Give me an essay to write and I’ll type away with ease. Give me an equation and I’ll give up and guess. I realized that it wasn’t a disability preventing me from succeeding in math. I was allowing fear to prevent myself from succeeding.

Instead of tackling math full force, I was ready to simply give up before I even tried. So from that moment on I studied, studied, and studied some more. Realizing I'm only human, and that I don’t know everything, helped me to let go of my pride. If I didn’t understand a problem, I wasn’t afraid to ask Mrs. L for clarification. As each 4-hour class went by I wanted to slap myself more and more, because I saw how seemingly easy it was. I took the time to understand formulas and definitions and the big bad math monster didn’t seem so intimidating anymore.

My success in the class really hit me when I was in the elevator with a classmate during our usual 10-minute breaks.

“So how do you think you did on the test?” she asked.

“I’m not sure. I wasn’t able to study as much so I’m a little scared,” I said.

“Eh, whatever. You probably got like a 100% or something.”

I, Tara- the student whose advisor suggested she had a math disability- suddenly became the class nerd. I almost skipped out the elevator like a child.

On the last day of class we finished our exams and were ready to leave for good. Before I left, I felt the need to tell Mrs. L how much I appreciated her teaching and encouragement. After I thanked her and told her how concerned I was in the beginning, she reached into her purse and pulled out a pocket-sized book.

“Here, look at this,” she said with her thick accent, as she flipped through the pages. She then turned the book to me.

I smiled at the page and thanked her once again before walking out. I never realized that a math class at a community college could teach me so much about myself. As we get older, our fears become bigger than the Boogie Man or broccoli. They seem to be more paralyzing. Rather than keep us from sleeping without a night light, they keep us from reaching our potential. If you want to be successful, you need to obtain a successful mindset. Would you try something if you knew you would fail? Of course not. But if you knew that with hard work and dedication you could pass with flying colors, then you just might give it a try.

The Bible says that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” and this proved to be true for me. Instead of accepting defeat, I decided to speak life and triumph over my fears. Give it a try and watch your fears collapse at your feet.

—Tara Pook