OK, maybe I’m not glad I failed. These are more like three reasons I’m a better person for having failed calculus. When I shipped off to college, 18, full of promise and enthusiastic to cover everything in my dorm room with leopard-print fabric, I knew one thing emphatically: Having 8 a.m. Calc was not a good thing. My headline may have given it away—I failed that class. It’s the only class I’ve ever failed. But I’m a better person for having taken it, struggled with it, and failed it. When Andrew Hacker contended recently in the New York Times that algebra isn’t necessary, the memory of this class rang loudly in my ears.
Mr. Hacker’s op-ed is well worth the read—and if you fall into the majority of American adults for whom the subject of math “is more feared or revered than understood,” you may find his take extremely compelling. I had plenty of moments where I was nodding alongside him myself. In fact, I’d sign up on the USS NoMoreAlgebra tomorrow but for these three reasons:
1. It was really, really important for me to struggle with something and not succeed. In a childhood with tons of happy memories, and a decent dollop of adversity mixed in, failing Calc I was the first time I’d ever truly not succeeded at something. And if I hadn’t learned how to get back up, get back on the horse, on my own, I doubt I’d have the level of resolve I now possess as an adult.
2. I learned how to ask for help. As a shy girl everywhere except the basketball court, speaking up in general was something I had to learn. Having been (thankfully) pretty good at lots of things, I had never acquired the skill of asking for help. And skill it is—one I exercise with some regularity to this day.
3. My eyes were opened to the insufficient preparation my high school afforded me to succeed in college. Sadly, I don’t think my story here is uncommon: Smart student, took whatever AP classes were offered at her public high school and got strong grades in them, yet still found herself wholly unprepared to succeed at the college level. I had to make an incredibly hard decision that first semester of my freshman year. I stepped away from basketball (which I’d been recruited to that school to play) and doubled down on my studies, determined never again to be in the position of failing a course. Now, 14 years after having my eyes opened by failing a math class, my life’s work centers on ensuring that every kid in this country has the opportunity to receive a stellar education that will give him or her the option to succeed to and through college.
Each of these lessons came at some cost—even in a literal sense, because of the expense of repeating a course when my family and I were already taking on significant debt to pay for school. Yet I remain glad—thankful, even—and a better person for having failed that calculus class. While it’s possible Mr. Hacker would suggest other means for students to experience these kinds of developmental milestones, I remain convinced that the struggle is a necessary part of the journey. In mathematics, and in life.