A work-study job taught me why I needed to put myself out there

Like other students, I had to work my way through college. But finding a work-study job was daunting because of my math learning disability, dyscalculia. As a freshman, I needed a job with flexible hours and time for my studies. 

The first job I applied for was in the piano repair shop for the School of Music (super random, I know). As part of my interview, I successfully moved a grand piano across a stage. But I didn’t get the job because I was too short to look in the windows of the music practice rooms. I couldn’t check on the pianos!

Thankfully, the interviewer said he had an even better idea. The musical theater costume shop needed a new student worker (again, super random). I knew very little about sewing, but I loved being creative and I was up to the task of learning a new skill. 

My interview for this new job was even more unique than my first one. I was given a piece of fabric and I had to practice using a sewing machine to stitch it. After a slightly embarrassing attempt, I guess they saw something they liked and I was hired. My work-study journey had officially begun, and boy was I in for an experience. 

This was one of the first times in life I realized that my math learning difference affects me outside of school. You’d think it would have occurred to me before that — you know, math, numbers, measuring, cutting fabric straight, everything that my costume shop job required would be a challenge for me. But it all hit me when I got my first project to cut and sew a fabric bow.

My boss told me to “cut a 5¾-by-6¾ piece of fabric” and I froze. I looked at the measuring tape in my hands and all I saw were some numbers and a whole bunch of lines in between. I had no idea what ¾ was on a measuring tape. After shamefully asking my boss to show me, I got a basic understanding of how to read a measuring tape (or so I thought). 

The next task was cutting the fabric. My perfect square was nowhere near perfect — turns out I couldn’t cut a straight line if my life depended on it. 

The sewing part came next. Did you know that there are also measurements and numbers on a sewing machine? Yeah, neither did I. 

After several tries, I successfully completed my first ever sewing project. I felt so accomplished! The next hurdle was filling out my time card. Who would have thought that too would involve numbers and math (like seriously, dyscalculia, when do you ever take a break?).

As time went on, I grew more comfortable in the costume shop. Yes, I sometimes felt anxious and worried about messing up, but I had a supportive boss and co-workers. With practice, I learned tricks to cut fabric straight, I memorized how and when to use the measurements on the sewing machine, and I made fewer mistakes on my time cards.

Now, five years later, as a graduate student, I’m still working in the same costume shop. I still need help on how to read a measuring tape — some things just don’t stick. But I love sewing and working behind the scenes in theater. And I’ve learned that my learning disability can’t stop me from anything if I’m willing to try and put myself out there.

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