My first semester in college, I came back from Thanksgiving break terrified that I would fail my developmental math class. No one called it developmental math back then. But I received no credit for this class, which met in an ivy covered Carnegie library.
I do not remember the value of X for any equation. I do not remember anything we did in that drafty classroom. I do not remember the students who sat around me.
I remember that my professor had a fang. I remember I rarely received a grade higher than a “C” on anything he marked. Sometimes I see and write numbers backward. I found it easier to skip my few required math classes than attend them. I was so afraid.
When I called my mother to tell her that I might get a D in math –– I was hoping for a D –– she told me I could come home if I wanted to. I could live with her and re-evaluate my goals.
I had so much anxiety I could only eat small salads with tofu in my dormitory’s dining hall. I did not sleep more than a few hours a night. I longed for the safety net of my mother’s house, a place where all the pressure I felt would collapse. But I knew going home was not the answer. I knew that if I left my dream school, I’d always regret it. I’d leave other places, jobs, or relationships, when they felt too hard.
I told her I’d stick it out. I studied fanatically for my final exam. I did extra credit. I hoped for a D.
Grades came in the mail back then. And my hands actually shook as I opened the envelope when it arrived. I screamed when I saw a B- next to the course.
I do not know how I earned that grade. My mother always thought it was because I was smart, but underestimated my abilities.
She was probably right.
I still have performance anxiety. I work in academia, so everyone I know is super smart. But a good number of my colleagues have backgrounds like mine. We have parents who did not go to college, or parents who had associate degrees, or parents who attended state schools. But I still sometimes feel like I don’t belong. Like I’m not smart enough to be here.
This week, the first week of my teaching semester, I’ve had trouble sleeping. Each morning, I woke up wide awake somewhere around 3 a.m. I said the metta prayer. I counted my breaths. I took melatonin. But I couldn’t fall back to sleep.
I thought about my classrooms, about the students who are potentially as afraid as I once was. I worried about their worry, and whether I could get them through.
Like me, they might be the first people in their immediate families to go to college. I know how easy it can be to give up when you can’t see a model of what’s possible or when a family crisis erupts. My mother died toward the end of my junior year of college. To this day, I don’t know how I finished my degree on time. I do know it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
After my parent’s divorce, my mother attended community college. But she had a chronic illness and two babies at home. She failed two classes and didn’t try again for ten more years. She was so afraid.
Today, her associate degree hangs in my office, to the right of my desk. I have three degrees. But my mother’s is the only degree I’ve ever hung for anyone to see.
She never knew me as a college graduate, much less a professor. But I try to carry her sprit with me into all my classrooms. I try to be the person she was for me.
This does not mean I mother my students –– because I don’t. But, if they need it, I want to be the one person who believes they are smarter than they think they are. I want to be the one person who does not underestimate their abilities.
Still, I can’t erase the anxiety they carry. Just as I cannot erase my own.
It saddens me that I cannot call my mother at the end of the day to tell her about everything that happened. If I’m worried, I cannot call her. In my entire professional life, I have never been able to call my mother.
My insomnia started the night she died. That was the first night of my life when I did not get a single second of sleep. I lost my safety net. I lost the belief that things would be okay. I’d seen the other side, the worst case scenario that came to fruition.
One of my friends who also struggles with anxiety told me he thinks anxious people have higher degrees of intelligence. We don’t fool ourselves about the world or probability. We look our fears in the face.
To a certain extent, I agree with him. But I also know other factors, such as hormones and genetics, play a large role in my anxiety.
I have accepted anxiety as part of my nature, and I work with it in my meditation practice. When I awaken at 3 a.m., I imagine my anxiety as a version of myself. I bow to her.
What are you here to teach me? I ask.
I breathe. I remember I am capable and smart. I try to see myself the way my mother once saw me.