Friends, Lovers, and Reclaiming STEM

“Christina, how do you feel about Math and Science?”

My good friend, Ben, had asked me this question while I was freaking out about my then-boyfriend, Noah—a gorgeous, brilliant mechanical engineer who enjoyed springing questions about math and science on me without warning.

These questions, regardless of how good I felt, always made my heart race and waves of nausea hit me. Every time Noah would try to get me to guess answers to questions about the pressure that lifted planes, or a concept relates to calculus, I could not escape the feeling that I was being tested to see if I was “smart enough” to be his girlfriend.

Initially, I imagined I panicked at Noah’s questions because I believed, as a hearing-impaired artist with no money or college degree, that I was not good enough for someone like him. Ben, a therapist in-training, listened to my panic long enough to see that it had nothing to do with Noah. I knew Ben hit something much deeper when I could feel my whole body groan at the words “math and science.”


My earliest memories of pain related to math were when I was ten. My teacher enjoyed walking around the classroom randomly calling out problems for us to solve. Her movement, combined with my moderately severe hearing loss, made hearing the problems next to impossible. If I tried to pay attention, I became exhausted from straining to hear, and the inevitable fatigue would trigger painful migraines that made me throw up coming home from school. On days where I would not even bother listening to the teacher, I daydreamed about being married to Ringo Starr or Anakin Skywalker until the teacher called out “Christina!”, expecting me to have the answer to the problem.

My name was the only word I could understand from her mouth, and every time I heard it, I was greeted by angry stares for not paying attention. I only understood the math when the science teacher showed it to me one-on-one, which was interpreted as proof I had ADHD. “We won’t use an assistive listening device to help you. Either you take ADHD drugs, or you get out of our school.”

From then on my hearing loss would plague me in STEM classes, and teachers would presume that I was “stupid and needed drugs” instead of hard of hearing. Terms like “phospholipid” and “parabola” were nothing but word salads to me, so understanding what they meant and why they were important was impossible.

In the first few months after my tympanoplasties, when my hearing was stable and the school year was starting, I had next to no problem understanding the concepts. Inevitably, however, my eardrum would rupture after 3-6 months, right when the STEM classes increased in complexity.

I could never tell if it was my hearing or the class itself, making my math and science courses into a test all their own; was my hearing loss really that bad, or was I so stupid that, no matter how well I could hear, I would never be able to understand STEM?

Figurative and literal fingers of angry teachers jabbing me for not paying attention.

Every math and science test doubled as an evaluation of my intelligence, which caused me to have panic attacks at even the slightest question. My poor chemistry teacher repeatedly had to tell me, “Christina, stop. You know the answer to this question, but you’re so overwhelmed with anxiety that you can’t answer it. Why are you so nervous?”

Noah presented me with the same question every time I panicked while we talked about math and science. Though I knew he thought I was intelligent from reading my stories and lyrics, I was afraid that the moment he saw me struggling with STEM questions he’d call me “stupid” like so many others before.

The anxiety of “proving myself” has never gone away, but Ben helped me begin to overcome this angst with his question. In asking how I felt about math and science without Noah, I was able to examine how often both subjects evolved into sources of anxiety by being wrongfully used as tools for degradation. In truth, I quite enjoy STEM fields, and understanding how the world works… but I have yet to separate them from ten years of teachers hurting me over my hearing loss. In hindsight, I know Noah just wanted to share one of his greatest passions with me, but battling those memories made it almost impossible to see. Whether or not he said it, I knew my anxiety was a source of strain for us.

I am not sure how long it will take for my relationship with math and science to change, but it is one I have been trying to improve for the past year. With or without Noah, I cannot let the carelessness of teachers who do not understand hearing loss keep me from anything I enjoy in any capacity.

Hearing loss poses its barriers, but sometimes, the biggest ones are created by ignorant, fearful people. In my case, years of hurdles set up by such individuals pushed me into anxiety that I am still working to control.

Friends like Ben help me stay in check, and people like Noah force me to confront the damage to my self-esteem. Though the bonds I share with both of them are very different, both Ben and Noah have been critical in helping me reclaim a good relationship with STEM fields. While I have a long way to go before I completely lose my anxiety, I am grateful to Ben and Noah for helping me start to heal, and rekindle even a little bit of interest in math and science.

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From The Cartoon Guide to Physics. Looks like I can enjoy Ringo with math and science after all.

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