I used to be the biggest crybaby. I never cried about anything that mattered, of course; I saved my breakdowns for math and science class. Often it would begin before my teacher even started talking, leaving me in panic-induced tears minutes into a lesson.
The first few times I cried in each class, my teachers were genuinely concerned. Some grew maternal. All looked stricken themselves, as though they had offended me in some way or I had appendicitis. After it had gone on for a few solid weeks, though, concern became annoyance, and more often than not annoyance turned into frustration.
It wasn’t that I meant to cry. I honestly couldn’t help it. When I didn’t understand something—and when you’re focused on not crying it can be hard to understand something—my throat constricted, and my eyes began to water. I was, in short, a mess.
I cried my way through seventh-grade algebra because who in their right mind could grasp the concept of a negative number? So did the number not exist? And why did multiplying two negative numbers result in a positive number? The whole thing was mind-boggling.
I cried my way through geometry, especially because we had to use Geometer’s Sketchpad, a software that should have been left to geometers.
I cried my way through astronomy because for some reason the way the light from the sun strikes the earth is related to the earth’s shape…but not really.
Each time I cried, it wasn’t long before I was found out. Most often, it was by someone occupied a neighboring desk and who would lean into my sniffling face before asking helpfully, “Are you crying?”
Because the answer was invariably yes, I usually just looked this way and that trying to pretend that I wasn’t actually crying, just sniffing with tears falling out of my eyes. After a few people had loudly asked, “What’s wrong?” the teacher would become appraised of the situation and come to stare down at me. This was the worst part of the whole experience because the class would grow silent and fix its gaze on my pitiful tears. A few hands would have found their ways onto my shoulders, where they patted reassuringly. One of my friends would sigh and reach for a tissue that the room always had for situations like these.
Before math and math-based science, my dread was so intense that I could hardly eat. It was a full-fledged “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” situation, except unlike Judy Blume’s Tony Miglione, I wasn’t a teenage boy fearing being caught misusing his bird-watching binoculars, but a preteen girl frantically reading her notes over and over again obsessively in the cafeteria. I distinctly remember my vision growing blurry as I stared down at a pile of rice on my plate because there were multiple grains of rice and that meant, much to my chagrin, that that number could be divided, riddled with X’s, and stuck in equations that made no sense whatsoever.
I envied my classmates who could skip problems they didn’t understand and come back to them later; I wished I could emulate those who were comfortable with understanding the main concept of a textbook reading even though the details of footnote 54 were a little bit murky. It was excruciating for me to sit with uncertainty. I would have loved to be carefree; I would have given anything to care just a little bit less.
But I did care. Asking for help, though, often made the ordeal more panic-inducing because I was often unable to verbalize my questions in ways that other people could understand (this is, I’ve learned, a common side effect of over-thinking things). I grew frustrated when my smart friend Sarah tried to explain trigonometry. She was patient as a saint, but I fought the urge to punch her in the throat when she confessed to not understanding what confused me about the graph she had so painstakingly drawn. (Sarah, if you’re reading this, I didn’t actually entertain the possibility of punching you in the throat.)
“It’s not worth it!” I roared. “Just let me fail.”
I cared so much, in fact, that I sometimes grew violent, ripping papers to shreds and breaking pens—not pencils, pens—in my rage. It was maddening. And depressing, because math is an exceedingly stupid thing to get pen-breakingly angry about. Shouldn’t I have been breaking pens over world hunger, not the side-angle-side theorem?
It’s almost more depressing, though, that I don’t seem to get pen-breakingly mad over very much now. At least I used to care about things, even things that didn’t matter at all. It’s possible that now I’ve grown more comfortable with the secrets of the universe, but it’s more likely that I can’t muster up the energy to care as much as I once did. I wouldn’t say that I’m apathetic, but I’m definitely less pathetic than I was at 12 (and, who are we kidding, 16? I blame 11th-grade physics for making me regress four years).
Honestly, I would rather be pathetic than apathetic. For all of the humiliation that comes with it, being pathetic has its myriad benefits.
True to its name, being pathetic got me an incredible amount of sympathy, albeit unwanted at the time. Some teachers were so freaked out by my tears that they made special allowances for me. One teacher even gave me a cupcake. That was nice. Nobody gives cupcakes to apathetic people.
Another thing was that crying made simple things very dramatic. Crying turns everything into a journey, and I believe we need more journeys in our lives. I miss the times that math homework felt as profound as climbing a mountain.
Tears are the threshold of passion. Once there are tears, you’re licensed to have a full-fledged breakdown, and you’ll look totally legitimate doing so. You can be breaking pens dry-eyed, and you’ll look insane. Do the same thing with tears, and you’ll be transformed into a tragic hero.
Being pathetic has its benefits, not the least of which is reveling in petty emotion. It’s a luxury to be able to cry over things that don’t matter. Being pathetic is a privilege. And it’s swell.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.