When I was nineteen, I spent a year attending a special school in Tokyo dedicated to university entrance exam preparation. In Japan, university entrance exam is a big thing, and parents all across the country tend to spend a fortune trying to send their children to a good university because it is believed in the Japanese society that going to a “good” university is what promises a successful and secure future of the person.
When I graduated high school, I applied to one of the top universities in Japan. It was somehow an expected path in my family, and I didn’t even think of questioning it at the time. I took the exam and failed. I didn’t get into that university. It wasn’t a most pleasant experience, especially seeing my parents’ disappointment was a huge emotional blow more than the fact that I failed the exam. But my parents graciously gave me a second chance. They decided to send me to a well-known special training school in Tokyo since the university I was applying to was also located in Tokyo.
The training school was most intense. Every day, from 9am to 4:30pm, we attended classes in a big classroom. There were about 150 students in one room, and once I sat in my chair, there wasn’t even a room to move my body for an inch. At school, all they talked about was how to succeed in the exam and get into the university of your choice. Throughout the school building, there were banners with the slogan “I cannot compromise on my first choice university” with a picture of a girl looking straight up holding a pen. The school provided several 24/7 study rooms and students were encouraged to study there after the classes. The community’s norm was that the longer you worked, the better student you were, and you were getting closer to your goal day by day.
Having always been a “good” student, I did my best to follow all the recommendations offered by the school, and I tried to study every minute of my day while my eyes were open. And I thought I was making progress. For sure, I was working hard like never before to a robotic extent.
At school, one supervisor was assigned to look after each class. Their job was to support the students emotionally. I think this was the most human thing that was offered under this school system. The supervisor of our class was an energetic female teacher who also had a lot of love and compassion for us. She remembered the name and face of each of these 150 students and paid attention to what each student was going through in detail. Every morning, as I hopped on to the elevator to get to my classroom, I would glance over the office area searching for her presence. She was always working on something at her desk, but just looking at her gave me a sense of comfort and belonging.
That year was a very rough year for me. People say that it’s natural for a student who is preparing for her university exam to have a tough year, but I would argue that it was much deeper than that. My struggle wasn’t about getting into the university of my choice. It was the time when I started to think about the meaning of my life and I was also still in the midst of my social anxiety struggling to communicate with people around me. On top of that, I wasn’t getting along well with my parents at the time. During that year, I even started questioning if I even really wanted to go to a university. It certainly wasn’t the best timing to encounter such fundamental questions of my life when all I was supposed to be thinking was how to get into that particular university. But the question was real, and I had to walk through it.
In the midst of my depression, there was one thing that still lightened up my heart. It was the math lectures I attended at the school. I had always liked the subject since high school, but I never took the interest seriously. People said that I couldn’t get a job after getting a math degree, so I didn’t even think of taking up mathematics as my major. However, I definitely felt my heart open with wonder whenever I listened to a math lecture or worked on a math problem on my own.
One day, during our regular consultation, I told my feeling for mathematics to my supervisor. I told her that I was considering of studying the subject after entering a university. She listened to me carefully and said
“Wow, that’s such a big progress you made. To discover that you want to study mathematics!”
It was just one sentence. But this one sentence changed my life. Somebody saw my sincere wish and treated it with care. From that day, studying mathematics at university became my dream.
At the end of that year, I took the entrance exam again, and once again, I didn’t pass it. But strangely enough, I wasn’t really upset. I was admitted to another university in Tokyo and there I could major in mathematics. It didn’t make a logical sense that I felt peaceful and happy when my parents were being deeply disappointed, but that’s what happened.
That spring, I officially started my journey with mathematics, and I ended up pursuing it much longer than I thought completing even a PhD at the end. And the journey still continues.
When I think back on that year, I always think about that conversation with my supervisor. How she saw my genuine interest in mathematics and celebrated it. Without it, I wouldn’t have pursued mathematics in my life, and that one sentence was all I needed to hear to lean into my little piece of truth.