I’m not sure I was born feeling inadequate, or if the damage to my confidence was the result of numerous falls from tables as an infant (hey, it was the 1970s). But after a great deal of soul searching and knuckle-biting homework sessions with my own daughters, I blame math classes for making me feel stupid.
“What part of this don’t you understand?” my second-grade teacher asked over a sheet of addition problems.
“You are still getting these fractions wrong!” my fourth-grade teacher howled.
Sixth grade effectively strangled any “smart” out of me. “You can come back up to the board when you know the factors of 24,” the teacher said as she dragged me back to my chair.
The damage was done. I figured if I wasn’t quick with numbers and angles and algebra, I must not be smart at all.
You can’t do that. You will fail. You are not bright enough.
Don’t try. Don’t. Even. Try.
My mother’s assurance that “God gives something to everyone—you are pretty and stylish!” was probably meant to be helpful. But it confirmed I wasn’t a serious contender in scholastics, and I had no greater purpose or talent than being a clotheshorse.
Rather than face embarrassment or further shaming, I pulled back from academics and started flexing my fashion sense, strolling the high school hallways in the latest Guess jeans and 1980s puffy shirts. I treaded water between barely passing history and miserably failing most math. Because of my lackluster grades, I was absolutely flabbergasted when I received a college acceptance letter. However, the fine print tempered my enthusiasm. My admittance was conditional; in college I must take and pass the same basic math class I failed as a high school senior. I charged forward and studied communication at Arizona State University, (the one major that didn’t require algebra) and not surprisingly failed the same math class that dogged me from high school an amazing, and costly (rest my sweet father and his wallet) four times. The fifth attempt was the charm.
Upon graduation friends were hired in dynamic jobs like teaching, accounting, and real estate. Overwhelming fear about the math involved in those fields plagued my thinking: teaching negative numbers, filling spreadsheets, taking percentages. I hung back, unsure what I was going to do.
“I know, be a flight attendant!” my father suggested one day. The job’s travel benefits satisfied both my parents and myself, and at 23 I acquired a job with an airline and stood pretty in a slim-fitting navy dress, a name tag pinned to my chest. Though not mentally stimulating, it was an emotionally challenging job that taught me complimentary alcohol doesn’t belong in a metal cylinder hurtling through the air at 30,000 feet.
I was never afraid to work on my appearance, possibly because I was told I was “good” at it. To lose the baby weight after having two daughters, I started jogging. I discovered I enjoyed it and began participating in local races. Around then I also joined in on the popular blogging craze and wrote a “mommy blog,” my tiny voice broadcasting to a few dozen friends. I took delight in my little audience and one night at dinner lamented the fact I hadn’t studied writing in college.
“Do it now,” my husband said.
“But am I smart enough?”
“Of course, you are smart enough,” He said, his hand and fork in the air. “I wouldn’t have married a dummy.”
Scot was one of the most intelligent people I knew. He could add whole columns of numbers in his head faster than I worked out the sales tax on jeans. He had a point. What was I waiting for?
In August 2015, I signed up for an online creative writing class at the community college. Each new assignment was equal parts thrilling and nerve-wracking. I bit my fingernails to nubs staying on schedule and writing breezy coming-of-age essays with themes like “My Very Worst Day” and “New Beginnings.” I started getting feedback. The negative comments stung, but the good reviews were enough to lay a foundation of positivity.
One day I saw an online ad for a Pennsylvania-based college that offered a weekend creative writing master’s degree program in Mesa, Arizona. While in the past I thought postgraduate education was beyond my reach, it now seemed a possibility. I approached my writing teacher and asked her what she thought.
At her doorway, she pressed a paperback copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist into my hands.
“You’ll find your answer in here.”
I could have gone for a quick “Do it!” or a dismissive “Those pants look great on you,” but Professor Susan, with her tortoiseshell half-glasses and wiry hair, was going to make me work for my answer. I cracked the book and quickly discovered that Santiago, the main character, must cast aside his fears, trust his dreams, and move in the direction of his goal. He must be the alchemist of his future. Ha!
With one week to the deadline, I hastily applied to creative writing graduate school. I shoved all my materials into an overnight box and let it go.
On the first Friday night of class I sat next to my classmates, Ann and Christy, two women in their fifties. The professor, Dr. Nancy, commuted to Phoenix from Fort Collins, Colorado. If her crushable hat and zip off pants were any indication, she had probably hiked to Mesa. Oh crap, I thought. She probably also read Bronte on the toilet and would chew up my papers like granola. Yet as she laid out the elements of craft in writing, she was remarkably humble and encouraging, patting my back while she looked over my work. When I got home that first weekend, my husband was waiting for me out back, a beer in his outstretched hand.
“I want to do it, but I’m not sure I can,” I said through tears. “Christy is president of the Arizona Poetry Society, and Ann has published five novels! These people are so smart.”
“Then you’re among your people,” he replied.
I kept writing. Six weeks later, I went back for our next weekend of instruction. And the next. And even though every single weekend I fought against a roiling stomach and risked being exposed as an intellectual lightweight, I kept at it, using humor as my weapon against my own inadequacies. Over long lunches I found both Christy and Ann liked to discuss dogs and The Bachelor, and were normal people with insecurities and foibles of their own.
The week before graduation Professor Nancy pulled me into her office and silently grabbed me by both wrists.
“You can write. You just have to believe it.”
My accomplished teacher—who I found out summited Mount Sherman, a 14,000-foot peak (while carrying an infant in a snowsuit!)—believed in me. This was an awakening.
Her words were a gift,
and it was my responsibility to internalize them and live them.
Fresh out of my program, I submitted writing samples to an entertainment website. My work was acknowledged, and I picked up a high paying gig dishing on the Kardashians and celebrity styles. But I couldn’t handle the dirty, nagging sense that I was someone’s “writing slut.” With the encouragement of Ann, I snagged a gig as an English professor’s assistant at a major university.
My story isn’t over. Next fall I’ll start another chapter, and I imagine it will go something like this…
It’s a gorgeous balmy Arizona day as I walk across campus to teach English 101. I push open the double doors to the lecture hall, and stride across the room with newfound confidence, the best kind of pretty. When I hit the lectern, I crack a supportive smile to the students. Taking a deep breath, I pluck a marker out of my bag, turn around to the whiteboard, and scrawl “Professor Toni Muma”.
Toni Muma works at Grand Canyon University, where she shares this numerical data point with English 101 students: increased class attendance has been shown to have a positive effect on grades. (That’s where the math teaching stops.) She holds an MA in creative writing from Wilkes University and is working on final edits to her memoir Good Enough for Government Work, which details her childhood and her father’s life as a Roman Catholic priest turned county employee/family man.