Math and other obstacles

Femia Tonelli is a senior who has found her home on the stage in the William Mount-Burke Theatre.  

This is a story of a fierce battle between me and my greatest enemy: mathematics.

The dream

I’ve never been a person who hasn’t had a plan. I’ve always had some idea of what I wanted out of my future. When I was little, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I wanted to travel around the world and work with elephants. Later, I wanted to be a lawyer. My parents supported this idea as I was already incredibly stubborn and opinionated and was never afraid to tell anyone what I thought. A lawyer seemed like a great option.

Femia and friend backstage for Fiddler on the Roof

     Femia Tonelli '19 (left), has always had big dreams.
    She's more recently discovered what it takes to
    make them come true. 

But all of this changed around fourth grade when I decided that being a lawyer for my whole life wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted to do BIG things. I wanted to be incredibly successful, affect real change. So, in about fourth grade, I decided that I was going to be the first female president of the United States. And I was going to do it by the time I was 20 years old.

The challenge

I had one major problem, even in fourth grade. I was (and still am) really bad at math. And my impression in fourth grade was, if you weren't good at math (and science), then down the road an ivy league school just wasn’t going to take you. And if you didn’t go to an ivy, you were probably just going to end up a bum on the street; forget having any kind of successful career. This ridiculous standard consumed my education (and maybe yours), from the time that I was very young, and stuck with me even into high school. I needed to be good at math because math was the most important subject, and I needed all A’s to get into a top school; because this was the only way that anyone could possibly be successful.

Just a forewarning: this isn't a story about how I won my battle with math, how I love it now and I overcame my obstacle. No. I lost my battle with math. Math won. I still strongly dislike math. I tried my best, and … I’m ok with that.

By my sophomore year at Peddie, my preoccupation with trying to fix this one subject was negatively affecting my overall academic self-confidence. My anxiety about math was taking my focus away from other areas - areas I was super-passionate about - and eroding my confidence across the board. As a result, in my constant efforts to study, memorize and better my grades, I wasn’t enjoying school at all. I wasn’t enjoying learning. I was obsessed with the future, believing I had to be really good at everything now to be successful later.

The secret to success

Fortunately, general life experience and increasing natural maturity came to my rescue. I stopped to think about things. I looked at my own family. My grandfather was an immigrant who never went to college, and yet he is successful. He has developed his skills in the areas he likes, to live the life he wants. He sent his three girls to college. My mother has a learning disorder. She struggled tremendously in most subjects, but excelled at and enjoyed biology. Now she’s a sought after eye doctor. I look at my friend's parents, family friends and others who are very successful. They didn’t necessarily go to the best schools, but they were ambitious and knew how to utilize their talents to achieve their goals.

Now, I know that this world has gotten a lot more competitive since my parents were my age. But I also now know that if you are ambitious, and if you are passionate, you can do anything.

I spent so much time torturing myself over math and over my grades in general. But now I realize that all of that anxiety never served me at all. Of course, you should try your best in every subject. But if you falter, even if you fail, that is ok. Focus on what you love. Because ultimately, it’s not going to be your grades or even the college that you go to that is going to make you successful. It’s your own drive and ambition put towards the areas that you are passionate about. If you have that, then you will succeed, no matter what. Take the things that you love and are good at, your talents, and carry those with you. They make you valuable to society; they make your life fulfilling. Because the truth is, life isn’t a multiple choice test. Life is a test of ambition - that’s what will get you where you want to be.


Femia Tonelli '19 will be attending Villanova University next fall, majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Musical Theater. And she is still considering a career in law. No doubt that whatever path she chooses, she’ll do “BIG things” down the road!