Plummeting through the air, I fumbled for the parachute…but it was gone.
Although my misgivings for skydiving prevented any possibility of turning this nightmare into reality, that was exactly how I felt at the start of my high school sophomore year.
Transitioning from a Hong Kong public school to an American boarding school, I was excited to take on my new classes. As I strode toward the math building on the first day of school, I remembered thinking, “Algebra should be a piece of cake!” However, as soon as the lesson started, I was descending into confusion. To my horror, the board was filled with mathematical concepts I did not recognize. Back at my old school, learning approaches were completely different. I grew up thinking the solution was the most important part of a math problem: simply calculated with equations. Here, understanding the process was most essential: how equations were formed, how many ways could a problem be solved, what steps led us to the solution, etc. It was as if I had to explain how to build a parachute when I only had previous experience of using one.
The same situation happened in my other classes. In English, I had to analyze literature by crafting a thesis instead of giving model answers. In history, I needed to write essays expressing my personal opinion on historical events instead of memorizing facts and dates. All of a sudden, everything was open-ended, and I was thoroughly lost.
Just like that, the fall began.
Contrary to my hopes, things did not improve after the first month. Seeing my peers flourish in class, I felt too self-conscious to ask my teachers for guidance, worried that my academic skills would be belittled. On a dreary October night, I found myself ranting about my school struggles to my sympathetic father on a phone call, who studied in America during his college years. “Wouldn’t it be nice if everything had black-and-white answers?” I huffed. “Would you still call that life?” came the reply.
Once again, I elapsed into stunned silence, torn between crying or laughing at my foolishness. Like everything I had faced at a new boarding school – the cultural shock, the social differences, to name a few – I should have expected disparities in my classes as well. Going into another chapter of life, it was natural to run into unprecedented obstacles, and academics was just one example out of the many. Yet, what to do next was something I could control – to keep sinking into desolation, or to build my own parachute.
The next day, I stayed behind after my classes, finally opening up to my teachers. To my surprise, none of them expressed any disappointment towards my troubles. Rather, they were glad I reached out and eager to help me get acquainted with the US learning methods. Of course, this was easier said than done: it took many extra-help sessions, self-revision, progress feedback, and practice. Gradually, class material and assignments no longer confused me. Besides receiving several commendations from my teachers for my improvement, I even won an Outstanding English Award at the end of the year.
While motivating me to continue working hard, these achievements are also a reminder of what I am capable of. Currently two weeks into junior year, I expect more academic challenges to lie ahead. But I am ready to plunge into the sky, find my balance, and enjoy the exhilaration of the journey.
(Copyright Chloe Lau 2021)