In the Margin

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

I was confused when I saw “85%” scrawled in red ink on my eighth-grade algebra worksheet despite all of the answers being correct. Underlined at the top of the page were the words “No Doodling!” and a large arrow pointed to a cluster of flowers in the bottom margin. I felt cheated. I had drawn the cartoonish flowers with glittery pink gel pen while trying to make sense of the numbers and variables in the word problems, but my teacher did not approve. The score she gave me suggested doodling was somehow hurting my ability to learn.

In third grade, classes became less about having fun and more about learning specific subjects. During math class, the hands of the clock seemed to slow down. My mind wandered from topic to topic, apathetic to the words of my teacher. My enthusiasm for learning began to dwindle. To cope, I opened books beneath my desk and lost myself in detective mysteries and fantasy adventures. The numbers and equations written the board seemed far less important than the stories I read in secret, but my teacher quickly caught on to my scheme and took away my books.

As time went on, a rift appeared in my grades. In subjects that allowed my creativity to flourish, my grades reflected an engaged student. In math, my grades reflected indifference. I realized I needed to shift my approach, so I began to doodle. This gave me a creative outlet, and, unlike reading books under my desk, doodling allowed me to focus on the subject at hand. With my new approach, I grew excited about all I could learn in math class. When I was able to solve problems that had previously stumped me, I saw the value of long division and memorizing multiplication tables.

In eighth grade, my algebra teacher’s disapproval told me I needed to shift my approach again. Soon, a three-pack of pink erasers rested on the corner of my desk, ready to rub out the webs of doodles that filled my papers before my teacher saw them. Long class periods became manageable again.

It was not until my freshman year that I fully understood my urge to doodle. I accidentally turned in a math assignment before erasing my designs. When my paper was handed back to me, I felt a rush of embarrassment at my mistake. “Nice doodles!” my teacher exclaimed. “Shows me you’re engaged.” I gave him a confused look. He explained that doodling helps prevent the mind from wandering and can help generate ideas by engaging the creative parts of the brain. Thanks to him, my notebooks are now shamelessly filled with drawings. During calculus lessons, graphs of sine waves become oceans carrying sailboats and sharks. Bottom margins sprout fields of flowers. My right hand mindlessly transforms three-hole punches into ice cream cones and snowmen, while my mind stays fixed on derivatives and limit theory.

In middle school, my 13-year-old self saw my erasers as tools of rebellion, even subterfuge, but now I recognize them as means of self-preservation. I needed the doodles. They were my simple way of personalizing my education in a world that often values verbal communication and quantitative reasoning over artistic expression. My doodles also taught me that I can trust my instincts and adjust to challenging situations, even with an act as small as drawing in the margin.

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