Archive for October, 2016


Burning At Both Ends, Again

One of the best parts about working is that, unlike when I was in school, my evenings and weekends are entirely my own. No looming exams to worry about, no anxiety over work that I should be doing instead of watching sports or playing games. It’s really nice to be able to come home and not feel guilty about relaxing all evening.

Or at least it was.

But now the bar exams are looming, and so after I finish up work for the day I’m forced to put in another lengthy shift in for studying. The result is that from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep, I’ve got obligations on my mind. It’s particularly exhausting given the instability of my work environment at the moment, and it’s not something I can maintain in the long run. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because I felt pretty much the same way applying for jobs last summer.

Fortunately, just like last summer, this unsustainable situation isn’t a permanent state of affairs. November 23rd is just over three weeks away at this point, and when dawn rises on that day the bar exams will be in the rear view mirror (assuming I pass).

Until then, I’m in survival mode.

Snowflakes

Back in elementary school, teachers emphasized our uniqueness from a very early age.

I remember one activity that we did somewhere around Christmastime. We were directed to cut some holes into folded pieces of white paper however we pleased. When we unfolded them, we discovered that we had produced snowflakes, and everyone’s snowflake was different.

What wonderful symbolism. The snowflakes were meant to represent us: each special, and different, and unique. They also served as cheap Christmas decorations which our parents would stealthily discard three weeks later.

There were lots of activities like this, all designed to tell us how special all of us were.

Two decades later, I’m not sure that this is what kids should be taught in school. In fact, I think that teaching them the opposite would be a better way to approach things. Teach kids that they’re not special, or unique, but rather that they’re very much the same as everyone else.

Perhaps it’s a less positive message to convey to young children, but I think it’s also closer to the truth. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike, aren’t we?

Everything that follows is based on the premise that our similarities far outweigh our differences. If you don’t subscribe to that belief, then the rest of this entry is, unfortunately, wasted on you.

The problem is that if you tell kids that they’re special often enough, they’ll start to believe it. That’s dangerous because it’s a very, very short hop from “special” to “superior”. The result is that you end up with a group of teenagers who think that they’re better than everyone else in one way or another. Some people think they’re cooler. Some people think they’re smarter. Some people think they’re just better human beings.

That last one was my problem. I knew I wasn’t cooler than anyone, and I never considered my intelligence to be something that made me better than anyone. But I absolutely held my morality over people. Go back and look at old blog entries and the message I’m sending out is very clear: “I am a very good person, so let me tell you how to be a very good person too.”

There are two problems with that:

  1. I believed that I was morally superior to everyone else even though I was not.
  2. I held everyone else to a higher moral standard, even though I myself did not meet that standard.

I think I’ve improved on this, but I do still slip up occasionally. Thinking that I’m somehow better than everyone else is a mistake – I am not. Placing someone up on a pedestal and thinking that they might be better than everyone else is also a mistake, and it’s probably the biggest reason why I’ve been disappointed by people so many times over the years. If I’d expected less – if my expectations were more reasonable, in other words – perhaps I’d not have lost so many friends over the years.

At the end of the day, I think Syndrome had it right: when everyone’s super – when everyone is special, when everyone is unique – no one is. Granted, Syndrome says it with a maniacal laugh and more than a touch of bitterness, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. Believing otherwise just leads to conflict.

Maybe I’ll call him up and see if he’d be interested in a career change. There may be a position in early childhood education with his name on – oh wait.

 

The Hare

I love Thanksgiving. Indeed, there’s very little I enjoy more than sharing a meal with 20 of the people I love most in this world.

This year, something was said that made me a little wistful though.

I’m not sure how we got onto the subject, but people started talking about me as a little kid. Four, five years old. Stories were shared about how I used to rattle off five digit addition or subtraction problems for fun, and how I used to impress family friends by solving equations in my head, and how I once asked for a calculator for Christmas.

I was being praised, and I know that. But in my head, I heard the follow-up question “What happened?”, and in answer to that unasked question, I could only shrug my shoulders and say to the rest of the table “I peaked early.”

See, math was my original love. Before I discovered linguistics, and video games, and history, and sports, and even before I fell in love with astronomy as a kid, there was math. I found numbers comforting because they were a constant. 2 + 2 is always 4, no matter what. I liked that. And I liked how no matter how complicated the problem, the pieces would always come together in the end. Math is nice and organized.

And I was good at it. Really good. I had addition and subtraction down before I started school. Multiplication came to me in Kindergarten. Division not too long after that.

I remember being six years old and getting my first workbook in school. Every day I ignored the teacher’s instructions to just do two or three pages and went through as many as I could. I finished the entire course on my own well before the rest of the class. My parents bought me a workbook intended for kids a year older than me, and I devoured that as well. They then bought me the book intended for kids two years older. Blitzed through it. Three years older? No problem.

And then, inexplicably, I started to coast.

I looked behind me and saw that it would literally take everyone else in the class years to catch up to me, and that there wasn’t any pressure on me to blaze ahead. So I coasted. I didn’t push forward, I didn’t try to improve, I didn’t try to get further ahead. I stopped pedaling and let my momentum carry me.

It worked for seven years. I was top of the class in math every year with no effort whatsoever. I was known to all as the smartest kid in class, and even the bullies took it a little bit easier on me because they needed my help from time to time.

The first signs of trouble were in the last year of elementary school. Algebra. For the first time ever, this was something I didn’t instantly get. It wasn’t impossible, but I actually had to think about it. That was a new feeling.

Then grade nine hit, and all hell broke loose. It was all fucking algebra, and it was hard. I was horrified. How could it be that I was suddenly struggling with math? Math, the one thing I knew above all else that I was good at. And suddenly I wasn’t that good.

I still finished with a very high mark that year, and I was still near the top of the class. But it seemed like just yesterday that I’d looked behind me and thought that no one would ever catch me. And I was wrong. It’s a classic tortoise and the hare narrative.

I cut math completely out of my academic life after high school – something that would have been unfathomable to me a decade prior. I had ample opportunity to take a math elective at some point in my undergrad, but I didn’t even consider it.

It’s not that I became terrible at math or anything. My grades were still well above average throughout high school, and my friend Matt from a few entries ago  still credits me with getting him through grade 11 functions class.

I just couldn’t stand to struggle with it.

I’m uncomfortable with struggling with school generally because school is something that I’ve always been good at. But I can at least tolerate struggling in most courses. I can tolerate a bit of struggle in an art course, or a language course, or a history course, or a science course, or an English course. But math, no. With math I couldn’t stand to be anything other than the best because that’s all that I’d known for most of my life.

When I’m reminded of how good I used to be at math like I was at Thanksgiving, it makes me think about what could have been.

I’m by no means awful at math today. I’m still above average compared with the general population. And I don’t hate math either – I particularly enjoy discovering quirky sports statistics to this day.

But if I hadn’t decided to coast as a six year old – if I’d kept going at full throttle for the next decade – how far could I have gone?

I wonder.