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I have a story to tell. Like most things like me it is a contradiction. I am an over achiever in many ways but also an under achiever. I was some born with great potential but I’ve lead a modest life. I have a few accomplishments to my name that I treasure. Like getting into the University of Chicago is one of them although it turned into a nightmare for me. I didn’t finish out the term there but I think it is better this way because it lead me to my career as a community manger and remote work. Both of which I’ve benefited from.

The story that I want to tell today is about learning Linear Algebra back in the early 2000’s at University of California, Irvine (UCI.) For those tracking the timeline, I’ve been in out of school for years and only have one degree which is a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. At UCI, I was in something called social ecology. I was taking numerous math courses although this lead to an intense argument with my father and is why I transferred to Humboldt State.

UCI was on a quarter schedule meaning that each course was taught over 10 weeks. You could drop a course early on until about the second week. This was before midterm exams.

I really believed that I was doing well in my Linear Algebra course. I was getting my assignments correct. I was feeling very confident going into the midterm.

And I failed.

Really failed.

There was one kid who left before 20 minutes and it incensed me. I was working on that exam until class was up and didn’t get a single problem correct.

Striking a Bargain

My teacher wanted to speak to me in his office. He explained that I couldn’t drop the class because the midterm was after the deadline. He wanted to make a deal with me. This is what we agreed upon, I would study as hard as I could to catch up and the grade on my final would be my grade for the class.

I am telling you now, don’t do what I did. It was torture. I’ve never worked so hard for a grade in my life and I wouldn’t use this method again. I basically brute forced the knowledge into my brain.

This was my strategy:

  1. Re-Do all the homework but do all the problems for the chapter.
  2. If I got even one answer incorrect, I would re-do all the problems from scratch.
  3. I would move on to the next chapter when I got all the problems correct.

I was also being tutored by my roommate’s boyfriend who was an engineering student.

I was really anxious the day of the final. There was no way to know if could succeed. My fear was that everything I learned was memorized. That I hadn’t learned anything. I was set to fail the whole course.

Now, this isn’t just a story about failure. It is about bootstrapping yourself and turning things around. I sat down with that final exam and was the first to leave the classroom this time.

As I turned in my paper the professor asked, “Did I make the exam too easy?”

I replied, “Yes.”

Then I walked out the door.

I got an A.

My professor actually told me that he regretted making that bargain. I don’t think he was expecting me to succeed. Actually, he probably thought I’d get an average grade. But for sure, I would’ve failed if I hadn’t taken my study so seriously.

For a long time, I didn’t feel as if I had learned linear algebra. It doesn’t come up a lot in psychology courses. I didn’t encounter it again until recently in my Differential Equations course. Yep, i still know how to do a determinant.

I know that I frequently under estimate my skills in mathematics. I’m in this weird space. I’m certainly above average and have taken more math than most. Yet, when it comes to the abstract aspects, I’m still confused. I did very poorly in my introduction to proofs course. The sad truth of it, I would have been fine if I had understood the definitions of the concepts we were learning in class. I didn’t have a good grasp on them and really struggled. I got a C but it was a pity grade.

I don’t know if it really comes down to ability or reinforcement. I know that these skills matter to advanced mathematics. My journey may end shortly if I can’t get my act together on this one.

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