“What I find so pathetic about our math education system is that it reduces a lively, creative, and messy human art form to a sterile set of notations and procedures, then attempts to train students to master them and become “technically skilled.” Of course it fails even on its own terms because there is no coherent narrative - the teacher doesn’t know where the natural logarithm came from, what its problem history is, what it means within the context of modern mathematics, only that it’s on the test and the students need to “know” it. So the students cram some formulas into their heads for a day or two, pass a test, and promptly forget them. Of course most people can’t retain dry, meaningless hieroglyphic information that they had no role in creating or contextualizing, so they get classified by the teacher (and by themselves) as “bad at math.” (I worry that the most talented mathematician of our time may be a waitress in Tulsa, Oklahoma who considers herself bad at math.)”—
Paul Lockhart, PhD
I fear a large proportion of my own ability in mathematics is due to a strong symbol memory. While I can perform a wide variety of calculations, I’m largely unaware of the axioms and foundations on which they are based. To their credit, my teachers did cover most of this material, but as long as the emphasis is on test scores it’ll be no more than a passing description.
“We can tell our children that school is important until we’re blue in the face, they’re not stupid. They see the loudest applause is for the kids on the field. They know teachers are paid poorly and don’t drive fancy cars. They know people plan Super Bowl parties but mock the National Spelling Bee. In other words, they see the hypocrisy, and we can’t expect society to correct itself. If we want to have any lasting influence on the way our kids approach education — the way future generations approach education — then we have to grab our pom-poms and paint our faces and celebrate intellectual curiosity with the same vigor we do their athletic achievements.”—
At my high school, the year-end academic awards ceremony happened at night and was optional, but the sports awards were an event that took place during the school day, in the auditorium, with everyone required to attend.
My freshman year, I brought a book and read during the sports awards. I was scolded by a teacher for not clapping, and when I said, “But this is a school. So we’re encouraged to read, right?” she gave me the nastiest look.
The next year, the principal pulled me aside after the ceremony and tried to guilt trip me for not applauding for the “hard-working athletes.” I told her, “They don’t have to clap for me at academic awards night. They don’t even have to go. So why should I be required to clap for them?” She left me alone.
The next year no one said a word to me about reading.
I’m aware this has been recounted numerous times, but why the hell does Lady Gaga think herself to be the Messiah of the LGBT* community? It’s really annoying and, regardless of her own sexuality, completely dismissive of the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of us who are actually striving for change beyond the superficial.
A year and a half ago I dropped out of my sixth form. I didn’t know whether I’d ever go back at all, let alone complete all of my original A-Levels.
This Christmas, hell, even this Easter, I was so close to dropping out again. I doubt I’d have given up on education entirely, but my confidence was so low that I would have settled for something much lower than I could really achieve.
But I sat every single one of those damn exams, and I don’t think I did too badly at all. And although much of that was through my own sheer willpower and determination, I can’t begin to describe how much hope it gave me every time I logged on and one of you had wished me well. Thank you so much, and I hope I’m able to repay some of your kindness now I’ve finished school forever.
[TW: OCD, suicide ideation] In which I talk more about my OCD to annoy my anon.
Okay, so what I’m getting from that message is that many people still don’t fully understand the concept of OCD. It’s pretty understandable, really, when it’s portrayed in the media as a series of pathetic little habits that the sufferer could break easily if they just, you know, got a fucking grip. So while it angers me to see the condition trivialised so often, I can see that the fault rests with society’s perceptions as a whole just as much as the views expressed by any one individual.
Like all mental illnesses, OCD is a spectrum, and people adapt to it differently. The person who has managed to develop compulsions that can be largely hidden from view isn’t necessarily any more or less ‘ill’ than somebody who is more outwardly affected. Because I’ve had OCD for more than eight years now, I’ve managed to get to the point where I keep my more bizarre rituals in the private sphere, and so if my anon is a person I know in real life, I can kind of see why they don’t think I’m unwell.
Now this is where it all gets incredibly narcissistic, but bear with me. I’d like to share a few of my own obsessions and compulsions over the years. This is not to generate pity or sympathy. This is to broaden awareness of a disorder that can kill, and I can’t validly talk about anybody else’s experiences but my own. If you find compulsive behaviour triggering, you may want to stop reading now.
When I was eleven years old, every time I finished a strand of conversation with my parents I had to ask them whether I’d offended them. This was dozens of times a day. If I didn’t do this constantly I would experience anxiety to the point where I couldn’t function normally.
My mind would force me to think of the most disgusting things possible. I don’t feel particularly comfortable talking about these in great detail, but I’ll give one example. It was around the time of the Iraq invasion, and a girl at my school had tragically died. So my mind would force me to picture this girl having sexual intercourse with Saddam Hussein, over and over again. It made me feel physically sick, and I had to ‘confess’ to my mother before it went away, which was terrifying.
I also had germ phobias. I’d wash my hands beyond my elbows, often returning multiple times to repeat the process. I also had to wash the taps as I’d ‘contaminated’ them as well. These have mostly gone now, but I still find myself scrubbing and scrubbing at my body whilst washing to get rid of the perceived dirt (although it’s now more figurative than literal).
Between thirteen and sixteen my compulsions were much more manageable. Here are some of the ones of the past three years:
Until very recently, I had to read everything twice. My experiences with this are documented in more detail here.
I would (and still do) constantly play back conversations in my head, this time not worrying so much about whether I’d been offensive as how well I’d portrayed myself and my views. I appreciate this is a common trait, but I’d spend hours on one five minute conversation.
Every time I mispronounced something or used incorrect grammar (in writing as well as speech), I felt a sharp stab of self-hatred.
When I get stressed, I bite the skin of my fingers (Google ‘dermatophagia’ if you want to see what this looks like).
Mostly, though, my illness in this period was closer to Pure O (a subtype of OCD in which obsessions take precedence over compulsions). Last year, I got to the point where all those little mistakes in grammar and spelling, all those minor social slip-ups, all those tests where I didn’t get 100% eventually led me to think I was the devil. Yes, I’m completely aware of how ridiculous that sounds, and I’m acutely conscious that you may not believe me. That’s fine, I don’t really need anybody else’s validation. Mental illness is not rational, and I know how I felt. As a consequence, I missed what probably accumulated to around three months of my penultimate year of school, then ended up in a mental hospital in my final year. As I said in my response to the anon, I have never attempted suicide as I could not bring myself to do that to my parents, but I had an absolute conviction that I needed to kill myself in order to save humanity. Maybe this wasn’t purely caused by my OCD, but the obsessive thoughts were certainly a significant trigger.
I’m a year out of hospital now, and although I’m much improved, that doesn’t negate my previous experiences. I am not saying that my suffering is greater than yours. I don’t even believe that it’s possible to rank a subjective experience in that way. I’m just getting the message out, because when I was eleven it took months for my parents to find out about OCD. None of us had any idea what was happening to me, and if I can help just one person realise that they’re not alone, that they’re not some kind of ‘freak’, then I will gladly take all the anonymous hatred in the world.
Today’s exam went well too! Only three more to go and then a whole summer of books and new memories.
What’s absurd, though, is that before my exam I tried to access The Student Room (a UK-based student website) to check for revision tips. Now, our school has a pretty authoritarian filter system, and if a site is blocked, it’ll give you certain keywords as to why.
If there are indeed multiple universes (which seems quite probable), and assuming, for purposes of simplification, that a separate physical entity composed of your exact DNA exists in at least some of these universes, then to what extent are you morally responsible for the behaviour of these others?
“Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.”—Martin Luther King, Jr.
(I even managed to incorporate S&M into my essay on aggression! I was talking about how it’s difficult to operationalise aggression properly in psychological studies as it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between consenting and non-consenting acts of physical harm…)
High on desolation, high on godforsaken 5AM rumblings, high on plastic minds emerging from the neon glory of teleshopping adverts. Feverish in the midst of stacks of paper, aching for invisible goals. Longing for a false freedom: the determinism of a weak mind. Impenetrable words my saviour and my solace; meaning, as always, is fear.