I slinked into the geometry classroom with a nasty attitude. That year began my third year in the terrible town and horrible school district that I had grown to hate. Each day I plotted how I would be able to escape. At the library---no Internet back then, friends---I looked up information about boarding schools, and mailed weekly inquiries to get brochures. I researched different schools in the area, and even called a few to find out if I could transfer. My mother scuttled each plan. She was sure it was simply typical teen angst; nobody actually enjoyed middle or high school. I was sure anywhere was better than there. So, stuck there another year, I began the year with a surly demeanor.
Geometry, I thought, another math, another waste of time, another horrid teacher.
The previous year I'd had a newbie teacher for algebra and had learned nothing. The truth is she was actually a mathematician, not a teacher. She began the year with the goal to make us all stellar math students who adored algebra. She'd wax enthusiastically about X and Y and draw enormous equations on the board. She'd look at the problems and expect us to see what she did, as easily as she did. She was quickly disheartened and took it personally when we didn't. She had no control over the class. Before our mid-year exams, she had a meltdown in our class---yelled, cried, and eventually ran from the room. She took a six week mental health leave. During that time we got a substitute who expected us to already know the subject and require no teaching, so we spent day after day individually struggling through problems in our textbook. When our teacher came back, she was quieter, and her goal was simply to get to summer as quickly as possible.
The year before that, my math teacher had been Miss Love, who liked to perch her hip on the corner of her desk and swing her leg. This was significant only because she wore very short and very tight skirts that rode further and further up her leg as it swung. She had her desk in the corner of the room rather than the center, and had arranged students in a fan outwards from there. We appeared to be arranged by our social status, rather than anything else, such as alphabetically by name. This was significant only because she had the cute athletic boys front and center, with cheerleaders flanking them. It went down the cute and popular scale from there. Those on the far edge---including me---were largely ignored. Miss Love shuffled her ballet-flat clad feet when she walked and had a soft, wistful sort of voice. She was tall, slender, and probably attractive to men in their late 20s and 30s, her age range. That just made her flirtation with 13 and 14 year old boys that much creepier---and even they felt creeped out, eventually. Each day she shuffled to the far corner of the room, perched on her desk, and began swinging her leg. She'd tip her head sideways, smile beguilingly at the boys, and ask them what was up. I don't remember learning anything about math that year, but I did learn a lot about inappropriate teacher behavior, flirtation styles, and how some adults never left adolescence or middle school.
So I walked into geometry with low expectations and slumped into a desk, ready for whatever horror show of a teacher I'd have that year.
When the teacher walked in, a veteran, an actual teacher, and stated her hard and fast rules upfront, then softened it a bit with how each one of us would walk out of her classroom having learned something significant, I knew this year was going to be very different, and I sat up straighter.
For the first time in my experience, this math teacher actually taught math. She seemed to intrinsically understand each place where kids would hit the "I don't get it spot," even though it varied by student. Class wasn't a place she lectured and showed all she knew, it was a place where she taught, and had us work it out, with her guidance and support. She never sat down. She didn't speak for fifteen or so minutes, then give us exercises, and go sit at her desk and grade or flip through a magazine. Instead, she walked up and down the rows, checking in multiple times, individually, with each student.
I had the courage, in her class, to raise my hand and say, "I don't get it, I need help," and it never bothered her to have to explain it once, twice, three times to me.
One day, as I struggled with a theorem, and she kept hitting a roadblock with me, she said, "I'll tell you the problem here and it's ignorance," My face must have crumpled because she quickly added, "Which is not your fault. For some reason..." and here her lips got very, very tight, "You haven't been taught the essentials---the basics---that come behind being able to do this sort of math."
"It's because I'm dumb at math, just can't do it," I told her, "I never have been able to. I'm the despair of math teachers," I tried to joke.
"You are not dumb. Not even at math, and I don't know how or why anyone has convinced you that you are. You are unlearned, which is very different," she said, "I'm going to teach you this, and when you leave this class you will understand geometry."
She called my mother and told her to get a tutor. With that individualized instruction and attention, plus a teacher who actually taught with the goal of me "getting it," the fog began to clear, and I felt, for the first time the warm rush of success in math.
By the end of the school year I loved geometry---I didn't actually love geometry, I loved that I got it. I loved that I could do it, and get good grades, and not feel stupid. I loved that teacher---I actually loved her, was ridiculous in my gratitude that she made me feel smart and capable.
She taught me a lot more than geometry. She taught me that learning involves two people, and failure isn't a failure solely on the part of the learner; it's also a failure on the part of the teacher. Success is the same, a credit to both student and teacher.
On the final day I loitered in the classroom. I was reluctant for my year with her to end, worried about the next math and teacher. My confidence in my math ability had blossomed, but was still fragile, and could still easily wilt under the wrong circumstances.
"Did you need anything, Julie?" she asked.
Yes, I needed to tell her how much she'd meant to me, what a great teacher she was, how grateful I was. I needed to let her know how much her support and guidance had brought to me. I wanted to let her know how valuable this year had been for me.
What I said was, in a typical teen way, from that generation that came before the generation that was taught they could say anything they wanted, any time, "You know, thanks, for helping me get it and stuff."
I think she got it, too.
Note: Remember, tomorrow's Hump Day Hmm topic is about free speech and blogging. What do you think about how courts, employers, and others use blogging against bloggers? Should courts be able to impose censorship on bloggers? Should employers be able to ban bloggers from blogging, or restrict it?
Copyright 2008 Julie Pippert
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