by Charlene Paul
I learned when I started college in the fall of 1976, that I wasn’t ready for college. I wasn’t ready for instructors who didn’t know my name and who had better things to do than remind me of impending deadlines. I wasn’t ready to walk from building to building searching for classrooms. I lasted one semester.
By the time I returned to college in 2007, classes were online. That meant I didn’t have to worry about being on time, finding hidden classrooms, or even getting out of my pajamas. I could take the required courses from the comfort of my own home while sitting in front of my own computer. Joy!
And then the day came when I realized I had to take a college math course. Math? My skin got clammy, a chill went up my spine, and my eyes clouded over. I’m a word person. Let me write, let me compose, let me read, let me speak. But please don’t make me play with numbers and letters as if they were meant to be together, along with strange symbols that look like the brainchildren of a seven-year old boy.
I pled my case to my advisor, and she said, “Good news! You don’t have to take math; you can take a foreign language.” Good news? For me, math is a foreign language. I finished everything but the math requirement and didn’t receive my associate’s degree.
Last year, I decided to complete the goal I set forty-two years earlier to receive my bachelor’s degree. I signed up for a math class at the local community college and the clamminess, spine chills, and cloudy eyes attacked with a vengeance. But I was determined. I struggled throughout the entire course, but did okay on the weekly assignments and quizzes. I didn’t set my sights on an A. I had heard somewhere that Cs earn degrees, so that was my goal.
My stomach cramped so bad I thought I was in labor the day of the final exam. My pencil ran out of lead, I couldn’t remember all the functions on my scientific calculator, and my hands were sweating profusely. That ninety minutes was one of the longest weeks of my life. And what was the final outcome? I got a D on the final and a D for my overall grade. It was enough to finish my associate’s degree, but not enough to count as a math credit at the next university I would attend where I would have to take not one, but two math classes.
As a communications major, I again pled my case that math was not going to play a big part in my career as a writer/proofreader/speaker. My advisor looked into it and came back with good news. “Instead of taking two math classes, you can take two semesters of a foreign language!” she said. Goody.
Before Christmas, the beginning of my first math class brought up all of those old feelings and fears. My GPA at that time was a 4.0 – perfect – and I was certain those two math classes would severely tank my perfect score.
I worked, studied, struggled, and almost gave up several times. But as the weeks progressed, my knowledge and abilities to work with numbers, graphs, strange symbols, and even letters mixed with numbers improved. My instructor commented in week three that if I kept on the way I was going, I could possibly earn a top grade in the class. I was gobsmacked, utterly astounded! Never had any teacher attached those words to my name. I was determined to earn that top grade. I worked, studied, struggled, and shushed negative thoughts.
The final project was a PowerPoint presentation that took days to complete. About the time I thought I was finished, I checked the instructions and realized something had been left out. In the end, I had a bang-up presentation I was sure would garner that much hoped for top grade. I uploaded it three days before the due date, e-signed it, and hit the submit button. I was finished with my second math class, and I was so proud.
Imagine the sick feeling as I read my instructor’s comments on my final grade. “I was really looking forward to your final Signature Assignment. I hope there is nothing serious that kept you from submitting. You’ve been a truly excellent student and I expect good things from you going forward. You are more than ready to move onto more advanced math classes.”
What?! Wait! How could that be? I emailed him, spent hours on the phone with technical support, and in the end had to take a big, fat zero on my final project. I was devastated. How badly would that affect my final grade? Not too badly, I ended up with a B+. But that B+ knocked me out of the running for graduating with a perfect 4.0. I told my husband I would have to re-take the class in order to achieve that dream. His response? “Are you crazy? Just be proud of yourself. You hoped for a C, had the chance for an A, and came away with a B+. Let it go.”
I glared at him. What was he saying? Had he no empathy? Did he expect me to smile and move on? Couldn’t he call our senator, our congressman, or even the governor of our state and explain I had been cheated out of the top grade in the class?
It took a couple of days and a couple of sleepless nights before common sense took over and sunk deeply into the layers of my brain. I received a B+. I passed, I exceeded my original goal, and I couldn’t even enjoy my accomplishment. My pursuit for perfection paralyzed my ability to enjoy the journey of learning something new. I won’t graduate with a perfect 4.0, but the good Lord willing, I will graduate. How many times have I robbed myself of joy in my journey because I expected perfection with each step? How many times have I compared my worst to someone’s best? How many times have I ceased to progress because of perfectionism paralysis? Why did I refuse to acknowledge perseverance could take me places perfectionism never would?
I am now in the middle of my third and final college math class. Yay! I am working like crazy, turning in assignments on time, and taking screenshots of the dates just in case I have to plead my case again. I am striving for that ever-elusive A. I will be happy with a B. In fact, I will be satisfied with a C. And when I finally fulfill my long-awaited goal of earning my bachelor’s degree, I will look back at the journey and see potholes, bumps, gullies, and mountains. If I change my focus, I will also see meadows, green forests, mirrored lakes, and brilliant campfires. In other words, I will see that the journey, with all its imperfections, was worth it.