I Studied Because I Was Afraid


“Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.”
― Cormac McCarthy, “All the Pretty Horses”

A Dream

The sound of pens and pencils scribbling against paper on a wooden table is unmistakable. I have dreamt of it many times. In the quiet classroom, as the ancient fans swiveled and spun under the mildewed ceiling, people in white shirts sat in front of their desks facing white papers, on top of which was written the esoteric symbols of x+y=z or sin, cos, tan.

A woman sat looking bored in front of a large desk, eyeing the students with suspicious but tired eyes, wishing to leave the place as soon as possible, to anywhere else. Large words were written on the chalkboard: 高数 I (Advanced Maths I), 10.00-12.00.

Even today I can feel the dread and anguish, as I had many, many years ago when I scanned through the list of questions and found out that I understood none of them, that these numbers, these alphabets, they mean nothing to me. They might as well have been written in an alien language. In the midst of my panic and confusion, I suddenly realized that this is the most important exam of our high school lives, the one which will decide all of our future. It all depended on this exam.

The classroom was quiet, except for one singular sound. All around me, the sounds of people writing on their papers rose and rose and rose to a deafening pitch. I had barely moved my own pen. Because in this dream, I have never studied for this exam. The last three years, where others spent preparing for this day when all their efforts will be shown and written onto the A4 papers passed down row by row by stern-faced teachers, I spent doing nothing. And I froze because I can’t for the life of me remember a single thing, not one line of formula, not one mathematical theory or concept, nothing. Nothing can be recalled as I forced my brain to spit out something, anything that I can write onto the blank spaces of the answer sheets. But there’s nothing there.

And then I wake up, and I remember that I am 27 years old, and the exams are held almost a decade ago.

Me & Mathematics

I have had this dream at least a dozen times each year, year by year ever since I graduated from high school nine years ago. And every time when I woke up from this dream, heart racing and pale-faced, I had to remind myself that it’s all in the past, that I have succeeded in passing the exams with flying colors, and that I am already a working adult. But deep down I know that some small part of myself still remains a child, fearful of the numbers and alphabets in algebra and the equations that so defined my student years.

The truth is that I have always been quite good at studying (even if it’s only in a very mechanical sense). Perhaps it’s because I can memorize things quickly, or that my studying methods matched with the requirements of high school exams (short bursts of last-minute intense memorizations), as a result, I had breezed past exams after exams. With only one exception: maths.

I cannot for the life of me begin to understand the mathematical language or the underlying mechanisms behind complex mathematical concepts. Even when another person is sitting there beside me basically spoonfeeding me with information about Pythagorean theorems or functions, I will be frustrated, bored out of my mind, impatient, wishing that the torture will stop because my brain felt like they are turning to mush.

I have always disliked maths, even though I acknowledged its importance. But knowing this doesn’t change the fact that we are incompatible. I am just not suited to its logical and precise ways. But why did I felt compelled to study, forcing myself to endure something I so hated, to the extent of having the same nightmare for almost a decade after the exams has long been taken?

It’s because of fear.

Fear vs. Motivation

I don’t know about other schools, but in mine (or in most Chinese independent high schools in Malaysia at least), our way of measuring academic performance is based upon adding up the scores we had for our exams for each subject, and then multiplying said score based on how many individual classes we have had for that subject in a week, then adding them up before dividing it to gain an average performance indicator.

For example, let’s say I gained 70% in my English exams, and 90% in my Economics exams. That means my knowledge of economics is superior to English, and thus more important for me to consider as a future career or academic pathway right?

Not quite. What if I told you that in a week, there are a total of 10 English classes and only 4 economic classes? Then my score will be calculated as such:

  • English: 70% x 10 = 700
  • Economics: 90% x 4 = 360

One subject is all it took for us to fail, no matter how good you are at any other subject.

Mathematics, in my school, has 12 classes per week.

My entire desire to score well in mathematics revolves not around a desire to be better in said subject, to prove myself to others that I am good at maths. It has nothing to do with that. There is only pure and simple fear. Because it has 12 classes per week. Because the final score I gained from a math test is far more important than any other subject that I do actually enjoy, such as history or geography or language studies.

And so I tell myself: never again. I force myself to study three years’ worth of material in the span of one year. But it is fear that is pushing me forward, fear so deep and looming that it became ingrained in my memories and my dreams thereafter. I was sold on the idea of this exam being the most important one in our lives, when in fact it was only just a small milestone, there being at least a few more decades left in our lives.

I was not motivated, I reacted. And in such an environment, how can I find the things, the subjects, or the paths that I will potentially love or enjoy?

Lost Time

Recently my friend told me about a girl he knew. She loved to draw and would like to pursue a future in commercial arts. But her father and her sibling outright rejected the notion, ridiculing her for choosing something so niche and unprofitable. So she was forced to enroll in business studies, and then in accounting, all of which she is utterly incompatible with, which resulted in her being perceived as slow and dumb, is bullied by her classmates and teachers.

My experiences are not as tragic as hers. But between us, we share a similar fear of failing the expectations set by the outer world, and a denial of what we truly enjoy in favor of something we do not.

It wasn’t until I was in college when I realized and became fully conscious of the fact that I truly enjoy studying and learning about the humanities. Even if nothing is ever too late, and there is still ample time for me to study it in the future, had I known about this earlier, had I insisted on my path, I would have been much happier. Because of fear, I have lost precious time.

I did not write this piece to criticize the entire education system. It’s far too late for that, and I can do little to change it by myself. But at least I hope to convey to others that there are things far larger, and far more important than your exam scores. Sure, it is important if you want to have a higher education, or if you want a better job prospect. But it’s okay if you fail, once in a while. It’s okay if you hate a subject. because you don’t HAVE to like it, despite the fact that you also have to try your best in it. If you find happiness in other things, perhaps then you, and by extension, we can endure it all.


As my consciousness emerged from the haze of my dreams, I can feel my breath and my heartbeat steadying. The landscape of the dream blurred, and like most things in the night, will be forgotten with the coming of dawn, as the birdsong rises, and the languor dissipates, and the city stirred once more with the promise of a new day, a new beginning. I will look at the clock and it will show that it is 6am or 5am, and I would rise up and walk outside of the house into the emptied roads.

The stars will not shine on this city, but the skies will be haloed by the omnipresent orange glow of the streetlamps. As I started walking, the dream will fade away, as most dreams do. But the feeling lingers. I will look into the heavens as I roamed through the streets and I will wish for some change, something better.

Perhaps one day I will not dream of a cramped classroom, with me surrounded by ghosts of the past, under the watchful eyes of a teacher. Perhaps I will not hear the sound of others writing down answers on a paper anymore. Perhaps I will dream of a distant place, warm and golden, infinitely more beautiful, more serene, free from my unnameable fears of a bygone era and a forgotten exam.

Once, I had dreamt of an island, golden under the setting sun, its brooks glittered and sparkled, as though it is the elixir of life. Surrounded by the golden seas, I lie on the golden sands and I can feel the warmth of the land passing through my cheeks. A handful of sand, footprints behind me in a long trail. I can still hear the whitecaps fizzling nearby. I never dreamt about that island anymore.

But a thousand dreams about the same classroom will never be as clear, as pristine and dear to me as this one single dream. And so I longed for it to reemerge.

When one day I can dream of it once more, I would know that all is right.

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