Two things can secure you a relatively painless journey through secondary school: being pretty, or being good at sports.
Fortunately, I had the latter. Adventurous sports were my lifelong hobbies, I played netball in the local team, and enjoyed running so much that I never did that thing I do now and intermittently grab my own bum to see if it “feels any firmer” (it never does).
These traits granted me safety from any particular scrutiny from my peers. Such is the superficial hierarchy of the average British state school. Can you pull off a boxy jumper and polyester trousers, or do you know your way around the football pitch? It’s one, the other or both. Either way, you’ll probably do just fine.
Unluckily, there was one thing being seen regularly in lycra could not save me from: being abysmal at maths.
Numbers may as well have been a different language to me. They jumped off the books, shuffled around a bit somewhere, and returned to the pages totally indecipherable to me. Many evenings throughout my school years were spent hunched over living room tables with my dad, desperately trying to calculate a + x= c and how on earth you’re supposed to suss out long division. Consequently, my grades were below average for much of my school career. Maths went directly over my head, and while that in itself didn’t bother me too much, being repeatedly the only person in class who seemed to never be “getting it” certainly did.
When GCSE Maths started, it only got worse. That threat of “never getting a job anywhere” with less than a C grade was repeated to us constantly, and I was concerned this would blight my distinctly non-mathematical ambitions. So, maths was not something I would do for myself; rather, it became something “we” would do in order to get me through it. My teachers, my parents and I were a team deeply committed to my C.
Eventually, I passed with that all important C grade, supposedly securing me some kind of employment if that mantra was to be believed. My grades were a mixed bag, rendering me unworthy of that “academic all-rounder” title many of my university peers carry. But we moved on from that period, ceremoniously burning all the past papers, then I was free to progress to sixth form, then university.
Yet, a couple of years down the line from school, something was up, and it wasn’t just my weak tolerance for the cheap booze in the student unions.
I just could not shake the sense that I didn’t deserve my place at university.
I almost dropped out twice, the first time for personal reasons, the second for not succeeding in my original degree course. Suddenly, I found myself confronting my suspicions that maybe a university of this calibre was not for me. I didn’t deserve it like everyone else. They were the real achievers, the ones who did it all with flying colours and more.
I’ve since learnt that this feeling is best described as imposter syndrome, wherein individuals cannot internalise their accomplishments and worry about being exposed as fraudulent. And wow, was I worried about being exposed as fraudulent for my accomplishment of being at university! It felt like “Plan B” was permanently ready to go if necessary, as I waited for a stern man in a suit to barge into a lecture and announce “Floraidh Clement? Yeah, there’s been a mix up – we know about GCSE Maths”.
For me, that imposter syndrome was accurately characterised by the paralysing fear of opening my mouth in an academic setting and saying, God forbid, the wrong thing. In fact, it silenced me through most seminars. At university, those people who sit there sullenly are often resented, their lack of contribution accounting for those painful awkward silences. I was one of them, so concerned that my mouth might give me away, taking me back to those classrooms and answering that question on Pythagoras wrong for the third or fourth time that week.
It turns out that terror of being exposed was a pretty effective gag. But when you’re regarded as the one who never gets it once, detaching yourself from something so blunt isn’t such a clean break. It’s like the “dunce” hat gets removed, but your hair is still dishevelled, revealing that you were, in fact, not somebody naturally intended for the academic path you’ve set about on.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a path you can’t make work for yourself. Yesterday I handed in my undergraduate dissertation. It was 12, 000 on a personal subject, which was both a source of struggle and joy. Signing off my name on that register, it felt like a pretty poignant reminder that if the girl who couldn’t do maths was going to be found out by a stern man in a suit, he surely would’ve done it by now. And she wouldn’t have written bloody 12,000 words on political socialisation in the meantime.
As you’ll have guessed, I’m no mathematician, but that just doesn’t add up.