Don’t Look Down.

Calculus is a subject whose very name tends to strike terror into the hearts of anyone who hasn’t taken it. It is, for whatever reason, infamous throughout the popular culture for its difficulty.

When I was teenager, I feared it. I was not especially gifted mathematically*, and so the thought that I would have to take it filled me with dread. My father, a math professor, related the grim statistics to me one day at supper. “Fifty percent of our students drop out, and of the remainder, fifty percent fail.**”

Needless to say, when I reached first-year university, I was deeply concerned to say the least. I had not yet fully committed myself to majoring in physics, but I knew that if I wanted to leave this option open to myself, taking calculus in first year was a necessity.

So I did so. And so terrified was I by the very reputation of this subject that I attended every single lecture and lab, no matter how sick I was feeling, and studied it on my own for at least two or three hours every day

A strange thing happened: I found, to my surprise, that I could do it. That, by staring at my notes for hours at a time and intently studying the textbook, I could actually wrap my brain, successfully, around this legendarily difficult subject. And I excelled.

But at the same time, at the back of my mind, there was always this little voice nagging at me, reminding me that somehow, what I was doing was impossible. I felt that I was like some character in an old Chuck Jones cartoon, having run off of a cliff and yet remaining aloft in the air; that if I ever looked down, so to speak, and considered what precisely it was that I was actually doing, then I would come crashing down to Earth.

So I adopted a simple maxim: Don’t look down. Focus on what you are doing, step by step, and then once you get back on solid ground, then and only them can you start to pay attention once again to the fact that you essentially just walked a mile across thin air.

I have felt this exact way about developments in my life over and over again across the past several years. You’re getting two completely unrelated degrees in Physics and History? Don’t look down. You’re all alone in a city on the far end of the continent, with no contacts, no car, no experience living all by yourself? Don’t look down. You’re transitioning to a woman? Don’t look down.

I must admit, though, that in Grad School there has just been so much of this stuff, occurring with such frequency, that from time to time, I have been forced to look down. Indeed, this is probably the best way to conceptualize my anxiety: it arises from the few moments when I start to look down and notice that I am a transsexual woman living in a bachelor suite with her ex-girlfriend, pursuing an advanced degree in theoretical physics while cooking her own meals, paying her own rent and utilities, doing her own taxes and worrying about her own future. And in those instants, I do indeed come crashing back down to Earth.

I am defending my thesis in a week. One last week of not looking down.


*Although, frankly, this had far more to do with inept high school teaching methods than it did with me personally.

**As I recall, he was at the time ranting about how university administrators were complaining to him that he was giving away too many A’s in calculus.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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7 Responses to Don’t Look Down.

  1. E A M Harris says:

    Best of luck with the thesis defence. I’m sure you’ll do well.
    Your calculus experience reminded me of my GCE in maths (GCE is an exam my generation took at age 16). I too was not good at the subject and I worked extra hard at the calculus. But I neglected the rest of the topics, even the easy ones, and in the exam the only questions I could do properly were the calculus ones. I failed the exam and I must have really puzzled the examiner.

  2. zinemin says:

    This is what I needed to read today. Thank you.

  3. mark kent says:

    you are a transexual WITH ASPERGER SYNDROME. YOU HAVE DONE should put a few photos of YOU on your blog. i am a adult with aspergers i all so have M.E. think what this is like; i can not work .but i take part in a lot lot research from universities. i have lot results. I GET YOUR BLOG, if you would like too e.mail me ask me any thing please do. I HAVE MET IN PERSON..UTTA FRITH.speaking for 45 mins.


  4. Good luck next week! You can do it 🙂 (And then it will be *over*)…

  5. lenaruiz says:

    This reminds me of me, teaching myself topology in the 12th grade. I really admire your determination. Good luck defending your thesis.

  6. maaeli says:

    Good luck with your exam!

    On the subject of calculus: At school, basic calculus was somehow presented as the logical consequence of the basic algebra and geometry we did before. I can’t recall it being labeled as especially hard.
    University was of course a different affair: In the first year, calculus and linear algebra were the two subjects which caused students to drop out. I think out of those who took the exams, the success rate was about 50 %. Luckily, you only needed to pass two out of 2 linear algebra courses and three calculus courses to be admitted to the general exam on the content of all 5 courses.
    The bigger problem was theoretical mechanics in the second year. The pass rate was similar, but it was the only class in our degree which couldn’t be replaces by anything else. Quite a number of us did nothing but theoretical mechanics that term. I panicked enough to sit in the class once before actually taking it myself.

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