Ever since I can remember, I have passionately avoided science and math. I can’t recall exactly how this aversion began, but it probably had something to do with my sixth-grade algebra teacher, who should definitely not have been working with children. Her first words to the group of 11-year-olds nervously enduring their first middle school math class: “I expect perfection.”
From then on, “perfection” became my standard for any kind of science, and if I couldn’t reach it, I was immediately overwhelmed and discouraged. This was my attitude going into Honors Physics, which was arguably the most challenging and frustrating class I had ever taken. I was constantly confused, seeking help from classmates and my teacher after almost every lecture. Even though I tried every type of help I could get, I just couldn’t make my mind process physics. I finished the year with blood, sweat, tears, and an A- (which I now realize is a fairly high grade)—and I vowed never to do it again. I’ve always seen math and science as the opponents of the arts and humanities, which have always been my favorite things to study. My brain is better equipped to process stories, images, and ideas behind words or pictures or abstractions—to make something out of nothing. I have always loved to create and to let others’ creations take on a life of their own in my mind. I just couldn’t see how math and science, with their exact numbers and incorrect answers, could ever work for me.
Later in my life, when I was working at a library, my boss informed me that I had been one of the victims of the most destructive mindsets inflicted on kids. She told me that I wasn’t actually bad at math, someone had just told me that I was, and I had believed them. I tried to keep this in mind as I begrudgingly enrolled in an Astronomy course, my only objective being to fulfill my quantitative reasoning requirement without knocking too many points off of my GPA.
Jumping into the material, as I had expected, was daunting. Physics—the class I had sworn I’d never take again—was a huge leap from the kind of qualitative skills I had learned at Kenyon. I was accustomed to making connections between the abstract and finding meanings for myself; the idea of jumping into a field of hard facts, numbers, and minutiae upon minutiae seriously intimidated me. Nevertheless, I was determined not to let this class get in the way (especially since it’s the science class designed for non-science folks to get their QR). Unbeknownst to me, the professor (shout out to Paula Turner!) was pretty much a 180-degree turn from my last experience with physics instructors, way back in my junior year of high school. She made it clear that her main goal was for her students to understand the concepts behind the material, not just to get the right answer. Hearing that, in a STEM setting, was new to me. I began to follow Paula’s mindset: if I really engaged with the topics and tried my best to understand the ideas behind the math, the numbers would come.
Granted, I have only spent a couple of weeks in the class. Already, though, I feel optimistic about this semester in physics (even with lab at 8pm on Thursdays). I regret that it took me this long to change my attitude about science and math, but all it really took was the right instructor to help me see the light.