Walking Up Hill

The first day I walked into my Physics I A class at UCLA I knew I was in trouble. In the class of more than 100 students I saw only two other women. Everyone I talked to seemed eager, confident. Most had already taken a physics class in high school. Many were planning to be engineers.

Notre Dame Academy, the small all-girls Catholic high school I attended in West Los Angeles, had a curriculum that was heavily weighted toward liberal arts. My exposure to science was limited to chemistry. Math was given a nod, but the real emphasis was on Religion and English.

I usually like challenges and should have felt excited to learn this new subject. Instead from the first day I was intimidated. I couldn’t understand the examples. I couldn’t follow the non-logic. I felt stupid and ashamed. I knew I was going to fail the class. It was just a matter of time. But I also knew I wasn’t a quitter, so I was destined to stay the course.

The first exam was especially painful. I was finished within the first 15 minutes not because I was quick, but because I quickly saw that I couldn’t solve the problems. Worse I couldn’t even understand some of the questions. In one there was a reference to a “guy wire” that seemed critical to solving the problem. I had never even heard of a guy wire.

I left the room early – upset, angry with myself. I needed to distance myself from campus. I needed to move, to stretch my legs, swing my arms. I needed to just walk away; walk until I could think things through; walk until I felt calmer; walk until I was still.

I headed uphill away from the campus into Brentwood. It was a typical spring day in Los Angeles. Smoggy and warm. I walked quickly at first, passing expensive houses, manicured lawns and cars. Walking, walking- getting hot, then tired, hoping to erase the hopelessness that I was feeling within.

Then a large black car pulled over next to me, the window rolled down and the woman inside asked if I needed a ride home. Did I live nearby? I said no, I was just walking. She looked surprised and said, “You look so hot and tired. I live just up ahead – hop in and I will get you something cold to drink.” I looked at her and got in.

In a few minutes we were parked in the driveway of one of the largest houses I had ever seen. When we walked in I was amazed by all the soft carpeting, the high ceilings, the walls with large paintings, the huge open kitchen. And then I saw the beautiful view. The campus and dorms below looked so small.

I sat at the kitchen counter while she handed me a glass of lemonade with ice. I took a sip. I felt cooler and calmer in her presence. I felt still.

We didn’t exchange names or life stories. She asked where I was going, why I was walking uphill in such heat. I told her I was upset and had just failed a test. She said that I had lots of years ahead of me, things would get better.

When she walked me out. I asked her about the gold statues we passed which were sitting on glass shelves in the adjacent bar area. She told me they were her husband’s Oscar awards. I just nodded. I didn’t know what an Oscar was, but I knew it must be special and something I should try to remember.

And I do remember. I have never forgotten that day and things did get better. I remember it not so much as the day I failed a quiz for the first in my life, but as a day when I was seeking stillness and found kindness.

Interconnecting Circles