F is for Fear



When I was in high school, I loved algebra. I enjoyed solving algebraic problems, finding the value of x, y, z, n, b, whatever letter you want to put in there. I liked the idea of balancing each side of the equation. I liked the neatness of it, the ability to solve something. Because life wasn’t always like that. So I loved filling sheets of paper with equations, the numbers lined up in even rows and columns.

I got A’s in algebra in high school, so when I took the same basic intro class in community college, I figured it was an easy A, just a rehashing of stuff I already knew. But in college, something else had been thrown into the equation that I hadn’t expected: computer assignments. This was a time when computers were just being introduced into the classroom; I’d never owned a computer before and didn’t know a thing about them. As silly as this might sound now, I was afraid of them. In this class, there were several computer assignments that counted toward a large part of one’s grade.

This outraged me. I could do the math. I got A’s on all the tests and quizzes. Why did I have to do this dumb computer stuff anyway? I tried-I approached the foreign computer lab with beating heart, clammy hands, dread. I can’t remember if I even entered the room; I might have just fled in panic. I held onto my defiant anger-I know the math. I don’t have to prove anything! The truth was, I was angry I was being forced to confront something new, something that made me uncomfortable. Part of me felt embarrassed that I didn’t know anything about computers while it seemed the rest of the world did. Maybe it was just my crippling shyness that rendered me unable and unwilling to ask for help.

Whatever the reason, the assignments didn’t get done. I got zeroes on all of them, which of course, despite all my straight A tests, brought my grade down to an F. It was the first and only academic class I had ever failed, one that was now on my permanent record. Considering I was normally an A and B student, this was crushing and shameful. I was ashamed that I had failed a course-not because I didn’t know the material, but because I let fear control me.

I gave in to fear and anxiety, and exerted a stubborn refusal to confront it. I refused to grow and learn something new. I didn’t just fail the course. I failed myself. The actual math tests meant nothing, really-but the essential test of confronting fear, of going out of my comfort zone, I had failed.

That sense of shame has stayed with me all this time, and over the years I’ve been slowly trying to altar that, to nudge myself out of my comfort zones. It’s still a work in progress, but I’ve come a long way from that shy twenty year old who took comfort in drilling out equations on paper that always balanced, that could be neatly summed up in a block of numbers, that would get me a pat on the head and congratulations for regurgitating math rules.

Math wasn’t my real interest anyway, but in writing as well as in life, the ability to confront your fears, stretch yourself, and wade in the waters of discomfort is an important lesson. I can’t forget this and let that big fat F on my transcript go to waste.


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