It was a mad, chest-tightening rush to get there by 7:00pm, the start of my first time back in the classroom in 22 years. I was just coming off of a typically disgusting four-week gig of not sleeping for 72 hours with some of the worst breathing lifeforms humanity has to offer. Trudging through my last day of wrap on yet another meaningless entertainment industry gig, I knew full-well this was probably my last willing participation in a two-decade freelance career that once drove me with the same rule-the-world determination of Madonna in the 80’s. I had gotten to the point where I cared so little about people that cared so much about themselves, that I couldn’t help but wear my disdain as a substitute for my aura.
After all the blood, sweat and tears, a lifetime pulling flawless logistics out of my ass as if my life depended on it, managing millions of dollars, hundreds of crews, and years of schedules expectantly more important than life itself, there I was, 44-years-old, sitting in an awkwardly silent, sterile white-walled classroom full of strangers, with nothing but the droning sound of an electric hum emanating from the poorly-wired ceiling speakers. The heavy smell of cheap cologne someone thought was appropriate was nauseating as I instinctually chose a seat in the back of the class, wiping the residue on my face from crying all the way here.
I had abandoned any idea that college was my path as soon as I got my first movie gig in 1996 at 20 years-old. Having been on my own at 17, with no viable financial resources other than a job at Rally’s fast food restaurant, manning the awful trappings of the customer service counter at JC Penny, and stacking pallets at Home Depot, the second I learned I could earn more than minimum wage to support myself, that was my ticket to the big time.
Back then, I was earning $80.00 a day working weeks and months at a time on what I considered glamorous television production. It was big money for a delinquent kid who barely graduated high school on a home study program, already had a couple run-ins with the law, and used drugs and alcohol as a lifestyle. The money went up to $200 a day. Then $500 a day. By the time I was 26, I was banking $80K a year with nowhere to go but up in a fearless naivety of balls-to-the-walls determination. Granted, that’s not Mark Zuckerberg money, but it was self-sustaining independence for a kid with no collegial future that landed expelled and in rehab at 15.
Just as I tentatively took my seat in the back of the class, as if to have a clearer path of escape from this precariously bad decision, the mature mother part of my brain gave a disapproving sideways look to that insecure adolescent apparently still in my head who chose that seat. I grabbed my backpack and moved to an open seat in the middle, closer to the front, but still not too close. No matter how many years go by, I’m still not a front of the class kind of gal.
The teacher stood in the front of the room, looking down at the old-school projector, shuffling through papers in a disorganized oblivion, not acknowledging the class in any way for the first five minutes – then 10 minutes – then 20 minutes. I glanced around the room wondering if anyone else thought this was odd. Not one person seemed to care. How could they? They were all half my age robotically staring at their phones as if they had nothing but time to kill. Not one conversation was started, not one word uttered.
Once the slightly-past-middle-aged math genius at the ancient projector beneath the ancient analog clock on the wall finally began to speak to us, he spoke with slow, scatterbrained nervousness, flailing his arms like an orchestra conductor, pausing for long, uneasy periods to catch up with his thoughts.
I sat there, probably scowling, with my class assigned high-school-level algebra book, my pencils, and my tense expectations that this was hopefully going lead somewhere, anywhere but the entertainment industry. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing, in that classroom, at my age, listening to this teacher tell us he hasn’t taught this class in 11 years, hadn’t cracked open the textbook, and was going to use a hand-me-down schedule to play the whole semester by ear.
As someone who was used to having an incredible amount of pressure and urgency to deliver top-quality work with no room for error, this struck me as insanely unacceptable. After eventually sending him an email with a link to his ‘ratemyprofessor.com’ 2.5 stars out of 5 rating, requesting he improve his current status of being grossly unprepared to teach a class full of paying students, I got over myself and realized that if I was going to learn the first of what is to be a total of nine higher level math and physics courses on my road to astrophysics, I was going to have to teach myself.
The next night, I attended my astronomy lab class with a nervous excitement. This was what I was here for, to attach my brain to the cosmos, to go boldly where I have never gone before, to see if once and for all I have what it takes to be the smart kid.
Once again, I chose a seat one row back from the front in between two young women, who turned out to be Sally and Nicole. Sally is a 23-year-old in pursuit of a culinary baking career from Manchester, England, paying way too much in “international student” tuition, with a killer accent, and as foul a mouth sense of humor as mine. Nicole is a 20-year-old psychology major, who thankfully knows her way around a scientific calculator, with a get-it-over-with attitude. Bizarrely, it was a great fit.
Without these two lovely women as lab partners, I might have run for the nearest exit that first night and never looked back. The fast-talking Israeli Astronomer/Professor, who turned out to be my exact same age, handed out bright yellow math worksheets full of scientific conversion word problems on the first day with no instruction on how to solve them – all due at the end of class. As I stared at the glowing worksheet of my demise, not having done real math in 22 years, not knowing if I was doing the right thing by going back to school, not sure I could learn this stuff at my age, not sure I would have enough time, money, energy, or opportunity to see this through, I literally had to soak up the tears I was trying to hide with my sleeves. Is this all a giant mistake?
I fumbled through the worksheet with my two lab partners that I had known for all of seven minutes. It was so over my head while my partners were much more adept. Every passing moment I sank deeper into self-doubt. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t do one problem and I felt like I was slowing my lab partners down.
I went home that night defeated – two nights into my new path that started with visions of it leading to a new pipe dream of being some kind of smarty-pants knower of all things astronomical through a hallway of open doors. I wanted to dig a hole and cover myself in dirt.
I became deeply, seethingly angry – at myself, for wasting so much goddam time. Why had I not gone back to school sooner? Why had I wasted the past decade trying to make the TV business work in my life where it no longer fit? Why did I waste my entire youth as a misfit delinquent, untapped in any way to my potential? Why did I not believe in myself sooner?
It’s over four months and a semester later as I write this. I painfully plowed through self-learning 13 chapters of algebra with a few mildly helpful children-taught tutoring sessions, where one of them during the session said to me as if all the world agrees, “See, isn’t this fun?”
It turns out, some of it was fun. I particularly liked playing with equations involving logarithms and imaginary numbers. I absorbed every inch of my astronomy book and completed every assignment, not missing a day. I learned the fine, often intense, details about quantum mechanics, the electromagnetic spectrum, terrestrial planets, gas planets, thermonuclear fusion, stellar evolution, planet hunting methods, moon phases, Newton’s Laws, Kepler’s Laws, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, galaxies, black holes, dark matter, dark energy, the Big Bang, mass extinctions and the possibility of life out there, in the immense vastness of expanding spacetime, just waiting to be discovered.
I even stood in front of a class and gave a presentation on the physics of falling objects, a public feat of which I also never thought I could overcome. I spoke about how the force of gravity and the force of resistance work. I explained the reason that astronauts in the International Space Station float in space is not because there is no gravity – they still feel 90% of Earth’s gravity. It is because as they travel in orbit at 17,000 mph, it gives them enough angular momentum to keep from falling back into Earth’s atmosphere or shooting out into space. They aren’t floating, they are constantly falling!
I didn’t bury myself in the dirt. I didn’t find the nearest escape. I didn’t eject the spaceship just because it was wavering off course and my ability to realign was uncertain.
I finished the entire semester of nothing but math and science with straight A’s. I out performed my expectations so much, that I unexpectedly cried after I took my last final of the semester, partially because my brain was exhausted and partially because it suddenly hit me, I was smarter and more capable than I thought. I beat myself black and blue for so many years because I never felt like I was good enough, even though I was good enough all along.
In my tears was a lesson it took me my whole life to learn. You don’t have to believe in yourself first to do anything you decide you want to do. You have to be willing to be scared and do it anyway. Believing in yourself is what happens once you see, behind all the fear and doubt, who you really are.