By Becky Steinberg, Hackley Class of 2020
This essay is adapted from Becky Steinberg ’20’s Fall 2019 Chapel Talk to fellow Hackley students, part of a regular series in which members of the senior class share perspectives with younger students.
I remember when I was sitting in those seats, listening to the then-seniors give their chapel talks. And I’ve always thought about what I would write about. But when it actually came time to write this, it was a struggle (hint hint, I’m foreshadowing here). I honestly didn’t know what to write about for a while, and it honestly made me a bit stressed (cough cough more foreshadowing). But, with the help of my dean and some friends, here I am, with a fully prepared talk! So, let’s start with a story.
I’ve always enjoyed math. I love it when you work and work and work, and then finally get the answer you have been looking for. And for a long time, it was easy for me. But, that all changed last year in AB/BC calculus. At the beginning of the year, we had a test on material we learned over the summer, and that went great. I thought that the rest of the year would be great and easy, just like that test. Let me just make this clear, I could not have been more wrong.
After a good first test, I quickly realized that this class was not going to be anything like I expected. I got the notes in class, but when it came to the homework, I was completely lost. And what upset me even more was the fact that this became very clear on the tests and quizzes. My grade was much, much lower than what I usually got. After the first week or two, I was completely discouraged and I wanted to drop down a level.
Now, for context, I had worked really hard to get to that level. I went as far as taking geometry the summer before my freshman year. But now, I was ready to throw all that work away. I was ready to drop down and forget that I had ever been in that class. I didn’t like the feeling I had from the class. I felt like I was the slowest learner in the class. I felt like I was at the bottom of the class. I felt like I couldn’t understand what we were learning. And these were relatively new feelings for me, and I didn’t want to deal with it. I just wanted all of this confusion and these feelings to stop.
So I went to Ms. Kaplan, the department chair. I told her that I wanted to drop down to the level below. That I thought this class wasn’t right for me, and that I wasn’t happy with my grade. And she did something I will always be thankful for. She told me to stay. And to be honest, when she said that, I was really reluctant to listen at first. But then, she suggested we try meeting regularly. I would meet with her before a test and we would go over anything I was unsure about, as long as I gave the class another try. If I still wasn’t happy after that, I could move to a different math class. And after a while, I eventually found my groove. For the first time since the second day of class, I felt like I could do it.
Now, let’s be honest here. The rest of the year was a roller coaster. I had ups and downs, and it was still really hard. For example, on the midterm, I got 17 points off on one page (tip: make sure you know what graph you’re looking at on a test). By the end of the year, I ended the class with a lower grade than what I wanted, but I learned something else instead. I learned how to struggle. I can almost hear some of you groan at this. I know that teachers always say “it’s important to fail” or “this is a safe place to take risks.” And not to boost their ego, but they’re right. Learning to struggle was the hardest lesson I’ve learned so far, and it’s safe to say I’m still learning.
And what I want to tell you is that you all will struggle. There really isn’t a way to avoid it. You will struggle, just like I did and will. But I think I’ve learned a lot from that struggle last year, and I want to share that with you, in the hopes that it might help you.
Struggle is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary to be either: “to make strenuous or violent efforts in the face of difficulties or opposition” or “to proceed with difficulty or with great effort.”
The first thing I want to say about these definitions is they both have an underlying message of continuous movement. Neither definition says anything about giving up. Neither definition says anything about quitting. They both use words like “effort” and “to proceed,” which is movement. However, it doesn’t mention what direction you’re moving in, which is important to understand. When you’re struggling, really struggling, you will be taking one step forward and two steps back at a time. And at other times you will be taking two big steps forward. Or two back. Or one tiny step forward. It doesn’t matter what direction you’re moving in; if you’re making progress or regressing, just keep trying and moving. My math grade was constantly moving up and down, but I kept meeting and putting in as much effort I could. If you keep putting effort into whatever you’re struggling with, whether it be academics, sports, or something else, you will eventually start moving in the right direction.
Which brings me to the second thing I want to share. It will be hard. Both definitions mention difficulty. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be a struggle. And when things are hard, we become uncomfortable. Those icky feelings come back, and our cortisol levels are raised (that’s one of the stress hormones, since I’m aware most people in this room haven’t taken biology) and we want to stop. There will be times that you have decided that whatever you’re trying to achieve is just too hard. And when we are pushed to our limits, we have two choices: stop or keep going. But again, if you stop and give up you won’t get to the point where you begin to move in the right direction, and you won’t reach your goals. There were so many nights where I wanted to just give up on my math homework or studying, but I knew that if I quit, the test would be even worse. You will not want to keep going at times, but trust me, you can. You have every right to feel however you do when you get stressed and are struggling, but you’re stronger than that, physically, emotionally, academically. It will be hard, but you can do it. The feelings will pass, and things will get better, I promise.
This brings me to my last point, which in my opinion, is actually the hardest. Take care of yourself, and ask for help. You are not a machine that can ignore the stressful feelings you will feel and just move. You need support. I’ve been super lucky to have amazing friends who I have been able to count on, and who have had my back just as much as I have theirs. And the faculty here has your back. Ms. Kaplan always made time to meet with me, as long as I asked. Trying to push away all the uncomfortable feelings will not make things easier in the long run. It will catch up with you.
One amazing friend of mine would always say the same thing when I went to him for help. He would always say “You have every right to feel what you’re feeling right now.” And, for those who have been paying attention, I’ve said that in this talk already. Because it’s true. Every feeling you will have is valid, whether it is sad, happy, angry, etc. So if you want to cry, cry. If you want to scream, scream. If you want to rant to a friend, rant. Take self-care days. Check up on yourself, and really see how you’re feeling. And if you need help, ask. You are currently surrounded by people who want to help you, but they can’t if you don’t ask.
So, to sum this all up into the SparkNotes version: you will struggle, but just keep moving and keep going, because you can do it, and take care of yourself and ask for help. It will end up okay, and you will learn so much from it, trust me. Thank you!