When people find out my son Sam is a competitive mathlete, they usually ask if my husband and I are "math people." The answer is definitely not. We were both decent math students, but nothing like Sam, who participates in high stakes math competitions and spends most of his spare time doing or thinking about math. The problems he works on now don't even look like math to me: I sometimes joke that if you locked me in a room with one of them and told me I couldn't come out until I'd solved it, I'd most certainly die in there. Sam's done pretty well considering his parents aren't math people. But sometimes I wish I was a math person so I could help him or at least give him better advice.
Ninth grade was tough for Sam, math-wise. He left the world of middle school math, where he was kind of a big fish, and started swimming with the high school kids. He had to figure out how to juggle the new workload with his training — and, believe me, it is training. To prepare for a competition, he takes multiple practice tests, which are sometimes as long as three hours. In the end, he didn't do as well as he'd hoped in the most recent competition and was rejected by a math camp he'd applied to. He'd set a high goal for himself and hadn't quite reached it.
He wandered in to my office one day last spring, clearly bummed.
"I don't know why I didn't do better," he said, flopping down on a chair. "I worked so hard."
"I know," I said. "Sometimes that's how it goes."
"What else could I have done? Maybe I should just quit."
I looked around my office, at the piles of paper on the floor, the post-its stuck to the wall, drafts upon drafts (upon drafts) of the novel I've been working on for years. I may not know a lot about math, but I know how Sam feels. There are days I think about quitting, days I think my dream of being a novelist is absurd. It's hard for me to push through on days like that — and I'm not 14. All I could do was tell Sam what I tell myself when I feel like quitting.
"You can always quit. The only person it really matters to is you, and if it isn't important to you anymore, then quit."
Sam sighed. "I don't want to quit." I knew he didn't. The kid loves math. When he was little, he used to carry a pencil and a styrofoam "O" from the bathtub alphabet and call it his "10."
"I just feel like the whole year's been a waste."
I get it. How many days — weeks, months — have I "wasted" writing the same scene over and over again? Tinkering with a sentence until it's a tortured, miserable-looking thing? Writing a novel sometimes feels like two steps forward, one step back — on steroids. But whenever I feel like that, I try to convince myself that no matter what happens — or doesn't happen — with my book, I've enjoyed the time I've spent working on it. And maybe that has to be enough.
"Nothing's ever wasted," I said. Sam rolled his eyes. "I'm serious. You may not have gotten the result you wanted, but you got to work on cool problems, right?"
He shrugged. "I feel like everyone else did better than me."
Sam was talking about the message boards, where math kids come together to share resources and, more often than not, brag about their wins.
"I know it feels that way, but it isn't true. You know people post about their successes far more than their struggles," I said, as much to myself as to Sam.
"I don't have enough time," he said, fiddling with the rubber bands on his braces. "I have homework and other stuff to do. Some of these kids are home schooled. They can spend all day working on math!"
I was the one rolling my eyes now. It's true Sam has homework and other responsibilities, but he also spends plenty of time playing games on his phone or watching sports. Then again, who am I to talk? I complain about not having enough time to write, then spend the morning cleaning out closets or online shopping, things that seem urgent at the time but are just a way to avoid the work. So I told him what I often tell myself:
"Even if you can't spend the whole day doing math, you can touch the work every day, even if it's for just 15 minutes. You may not solve the problem, but it might be easier to solve the next time."
"Yeah, maybe." He yawned. He stays up later these days, has a hard time waking up in the morning. He's usually the last of us to turn in for the night. "I feel like I'm running out of time."
These are high school competitions. So if he doesn't make it to the top in the next year or two, he'll never make it. My novel has no such deadline. I could work on it for five more years, 10 more years. I could also stop tomorrow. But I feel the pressure of time, too. I'm not getting any younger. Maybe my ideas won't be relevant next year, maybe they aren't relevant now. But before I could say anything, Sam said, "Maybe I'm not good enough."
There it was. The thought that haunts us all — writers, mathletes, humans — that we just aren't good enough, and that all our hard work won't matter in the end because we don't have "it," that ineffable something you need to turn your effort into success. I don't have an answer for Sam. It plagues me, too.
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