I’m about to apply to MFA programs for my degree in fiction writing, so for the past few weeks, I’ve been studying for the GRE, armed with a book called “The Ultimate Math Refresher” and a Kaplan guide to the test. Most of it won’t be a problem: a cursory review of the vocabulary words showed that I knew all of them, and while I haven’t written one in a while, I have a pretty good recollection of how to churn out the five-paragraph essay. Math, however, isn’t a subject that I’ve checked in with for five years or so. I fulfilled the Quantitative Reasoning requirement at college with an introductory demography course, which was more about making generalizations and using Excel. Geometry and I haven’t spent much time together since 9th grade. I never even took calculus– one of the great virtues of the IB program was that we were offered two math tracks, and I was able to take statistics instead.
I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m even stressing out about math. I’m going to writing school, after all. Here’s why: while GRE scores have virtually no importance for admission to writing programs, they do count for many scholarships. If I want to pay for school, it’s important that I score well on every part of the test. So I spent the morning slaving over a practice exam, with my sainted boyfriend by my side to explain the problems I didn’t understand. This turned out to be most of them, and I didn’t make it halfway through the test before I began to sob with frustration. I’d memorized plenty of formulas and stratagems, but the logical underpinnings of math just elude me, and the book’s glib, “isn’t it obvious” explanations weren’t a help for many of the questions I didn’t understand. I conquered some questions with sheer effort, but the natural aptitude isn’t there, and I still have no clue how I’ll be able to do a problem a minute, sixty times over, come the day of the test. All my old fears and frustrations in math class, every drop of that sea of tears, came flooding back in an instant, as if five years hadn’t meant a thing.
Before our round of test-prep this morning, I had read an article in the New York Times with which I deeply empathized: it was about a pair of twins, Kristy and Katie Barry, who are seventeen months out of college (just like me) and have yet to find permanent, full-time work (same). They were journalism majors at Rutgers, and we’re pursuing similar jobs both in the full-time sphere (assistant positions at magazines, marketing positions at companies) and in the just-getting-by sphere (working as extras, temping, freelance writing, bartending). They’ve been rejected from 150 jobs, about the same amount as I have, most of those rejections being delivered only with silence. We’ve both exhausted every friend, contact and opportunity we have. (One difference: They have five months of unemployment on me; in about a week, it’ll have been a full year since my layoff.)
The comments on this article were absolutely brutal. People went after every aspect of their lives: their $2900 apartment (which, mind you, is a two-bedroom shared between FOUR people), their occasional cup of Starbucks, the fact that one of them went on vacation to Cancun. (These incidents of spending are debatable; I can only deflect criticism on my part by saying that I try to spend as little as possible on everything.) But the thing that made me craziest was how many people attacked them for their choice of major. A few selections from the pool:
“Jounalism [sic] degree, what a waste. Why don’t these colleges advise their students to take more math and science? That is what the country needs. If a student wants a degree in Jounalism, Psychology, Sociology, History or the Humanities, fine but get a degree in something that will provide them with a livelihood. Why don’t the colleges find out where the jobs are and educate their students accordingly?”
“Journalism degrees. Hmmm. How would this story be surprising, even if the economy was in better shape? Unemployment is at a 30-year high, yet the US is still importing scientists and engineers. Figure it out.”
“I am surprised the editors at the Times allowed this piece to be published. With 7.1% unemployment for this demographic (27 year old college graduates), that means that 92.9% are employed. What distinguishes those graduates with and without jobs? Not to be too cruel, but one would bet that these gals did not major in electrical engineering, molecular biology, or cognitive neuroscience, fields with an effective unemployment rate of zero.”
Comment after comment follows, many with the same blunt message: You’re an idiot to study the humanities. If you studied math and science, you’d have a job by now.
Naturally, math and science are good things to study. I’m so grateful that there are people out there who have talent in these fields, who engineer the plumbing for my shower and the computer on which I type. In many ways, I envy them. My patience for learning how things work is incredibly poor. I’d rather put a gun to my head than spend ten hours taking apart and putting back together a radio. The fact that someone can do these things at all, much less derive joy from them, is wonderful.
But that’s not something that all of us can do. While I think everyone should have the chance to be exposed to math and science, to catch the spark if it exists within them, some people don’t have the tinder, and I’m one of them. My spark caught when I learned to read, when I wrote little stories in my battered spiral notebook, when I copied Yeats and Wordsworth admiringly from the board. And that should be okay, too.
I’m not naive enough to think that all sparks are of equal worth in this capitalist society. More people want cars and iPhones than books. I’m never going to get rich, and that doesn’t bother me. But now that the situation has deteriorated so far, now that a meager living has turned into no living at all, must I be ashamed of what I chose to do as well?
Nor am I saying that I’m exactly the same as these girls. They have a Midwestern, blond exuberance that isn’t really my style; I doubt we’d be friends in real life. That said, it seems like they did their best to choose a career that suited their interests and skills: talking to people, engaging with new subjects, being creative and resourceful users of information. Yet the only response that seems to merit is, “Why the hell didn’t you become an electrical engineer?”
Our culture has always played the opposing sides between passion and a pension: love or money is a classic dilemma. But recently, the odds seem to have been stepped up, with every career guide imploring the reader to find what he or she truly loves, and the money will follow, and simultaneously, with money forming shallower pools where there were once lakes, and drying into dust where there were once puddles.
I’m certainly not blindly proud of being mathematically illiterate. I would gladly trade in my skills at writing and creating, whatever they may be, for happiness in finding the circumference of a circle or tinkering with an engine. Finding joy in a place where there is also job security seems like paradise to me. But I am the person I am, and my brain does what it does. I would be no asset to neuroscience or engineering, even if I could manage to pass the necessary classes, even if I could manage to accomplish the basic tasks of the stable, well-paying job.
Instead, I puzzle my way through the GRE’s questions, so simple in the mind of the engineer, and cross my fingers for even the part-time gig, the day of temping, the hours of pretending to be a hospital patient for minimum wage. Where I once felt the mild sting of resignation, I now feel the burning, sinking shame.