Archive for October, 2014

My class reunion is coming up this weekend. I went to the last one–it was okay. Not much had changed about how people acted or treated one another. I stay in touch with the people I like and not the ones I don’t, so there was no real need to go to this next one. Besides, my buddies weren’t going, and I sure could use a free weekend to write. Or do laundry.

The other day, my spousal partner heard me talking to our teenager about how much I had loved chemistry in high school. (The teenager is a complete math/science nerd and extremely proud of it, though getting him to write is worse than pulling molars). We had a good teacher–she was funny and she knew how to teach, a winning combo. I especially enjoyed the study of atoms–how they were made and stuff of that ilk (I’m sure there’s a name for that sort of thing, but I don’t recall it). My spouse asked me why I’d never taken more science in college, aside from the required 2-course sequence (biology) if I loved chemistry so much. “Because of my high school trig teacher,” I promptly answered. “She taught me a bad lesson–that I couldn’t do math.” Now you see how this links to the high school reunion. I’ve been seeing pictures on various social media making quips about that math class and its “quirky” teacher. They’re not a bit funny to me. Having that teacher was, in fact, more than a bit traumatic.

See, here’s the deal. I was good at math and science. Maybe I wasn’t destined for a career in chemistry, nor was I any kind of math genius, but with the right person guiding me, I not only was decent at math and science, I was quite good at geometry. And I did fine in biology, though I liked chemistry much better. The spouse said, “I see a lot of stories about ‘the teacher that most influenced me’ in a positive light. Why not write about a negative experience?” So here it is.

I had a particularly superb 8th grade math teacher (I took algebra a year early) as well as an inspiring 8th grade science teacher (earth science–weather and oceanography–it was wonderful). I remember her setting a glass of cold water down in front of our lab group. Condensation formed on the exterior of the container. “Tell me what is happening and why,” she said. “Explain to me what’s going on when the water forms on the outside of the glass.” We came up with some wild theories, but eventually figured it out by working through the problem in front of us. Damn, talk about a teachable moment! And it was low cost! I ran into her about 15 years later at a conference and was delighted to see she’d gone on to teach college science education to future teachers, after a long career in the middle school classroom. My algebra teacher began on the first day of class with the books open on the desks. She could be fun, but she stressed to us from Day 1 how serious we had to be about our studies. I got pneumonia in 8th grade and had to stay home five days of school. When the doctor looked at my chest x-rays and delivered the bad news, I panicked. “I can’t miss algebra!” I cried. “Please, can I just go to school for that one period?” He looked at my mom and said, “No patient of mine has ever complained about getting to miss school.” I think he thought I was nuts–or very odd. I got As for all but one 6-week grading period that year.

So, in high school, as a freshman, I was in Algebra II and Biology, both of which were sophomore classes. I wasn’t the #1 student, but I was still a strong performer. I enjoyed the classes a lot. Even dissection, which I found pretty gross, was bearable. I knew absolutely and utterly that I would never have a career in any kind of medical setting–ever. I took a second year of biology–challenging but interesting–and followed up that second algebra with geometry, which I adored. I was considering a career in law, with a major in classics or English, so doing proofs was kind of a breeze.

As a junior, I went into the next math course–college algebra (aka algebra III) and trig, a two-semester combined course. And things fell apart. No matter how much homework I did or how many hours I spent studying, I rarely got scores above a C. And I really tried. I got help from friends. I spent hours trying to understand the stuff. But when the teacher’s idea of “teaching” was showing one problem, saying “you don’t have to understand anything but the formula,” and getting students to do problems on the board (sometimes incorrectly) without any follow-up explanation…well, that was an issue. Remember that this was long before things like Khan Academy or YouTube; even the Internet was quite young. My parents, who had no idea what to do, called the district office to see if any kind of tutoring was available–nope. I squeaked by with a C in college algebra, but when it got to trig, I couldn’t even get a D. So, I just completely gave up. I spent that last 15 or so weeks of school writing scripts for a TV show my bestie and I had created. The teacher never noticed since I was quiet and didn’t move the chair out of its tile squares; she had a real fixation about that. My writing skills developed nicely. Meanwhile, I was doing fine in all my other subjects, and I’d discovered a passion for history, thanks to a teacher every bit as gifted as the math teacher was terrible. It was probably the only thing that kept me from falling into a serious depression. For the first time in my life, I had genuinely failed at something. My demanding mother, who never interfered in school because teachers were always right, saw how hard I’d worked and didn’t skin me alive for bringing home a report card with the letters A, A, B+, A, A, F.  (The B+ was in chemistry, back in the days when an A had to be a 94 or higher). Something look weird about those letters to you? Yeah, me, too. If I had a student with those grades, I’d talk to them and find out what was going on. Only one teacher of mine did. All students had the same homeroom teacher, all four years of high school. Near the last day of school that year, she took me aside. Mind you, she hadn’t ever had me for a class, and other than seeing her for 15 minutes a day, she barely knew me…or so I thought.

“I just wanted to tell you….” I remember her awkward pause. “I wanted to tell you that the same thing that happened to you in math this year happened to my daughter, too.” I recalled that her daughter had graduated a year earlier, a popular honor student. “And…please don’t worry. She got into the first university of her choice. She’s doing great there, and she’s not having any trouble with math on the college level.” That was all she said, and probably all she felt she could say without speaking ill of a colleague. I wish I’d thanked her more for saying what she did. It meant a lot. Flunking that math class seemed to cost me a lot in the short term–not graduating in the top 10 of my class, not taking any more math or science (despite wanting to be in advanced chemistry), possibly missing out on some scholarship money, and definitely destroying my confidence in my math/science abilities. I never considered any kind of career in science after that point…because I’d been given the clear message that I would fail.

I exempted all but one math class for my undergraduate degree; I took logic for that one required math and got a B, which was fine since it was actually sort of boring. I took one statistics course in grad school and got an A. I became a successful social sciences faculty member with a Ph.D., a tenured associate professor (for the moment). I thought I’d never have to worry about math again aside from averaging grades. But then, we had this aberrant child who was some kind of math/science whiz. When he was in 5th grade, I saw that unless I refreshed my math skills, I wouldn’t be able to help him before too much time passed.

We are lucky enough to be able to take one or two classes as employees of our university system, free, each semester. I’d been out of high school a long time; heck, I’d been out of college a long time, other than as the instructor. I knew I was both wiser and able to tell whether or not a teacher knew how to teach. I took a chance and enrolled in college algebra. Parts of it were challenging (logarithms, shudder), but I got an A. In fact, to everyone’s utter shock, I found out I sort of liked math, for many of the same reasons I took and liked foreign languages. I got a thrill out of the deciphering and problem solving. I enjoyed it enough to enroll next in pre-calculus, and there was another shock: I loved trig. LOVED it. The whole earth opened up, and angels sang as my mind started seeing unit circles in everything from the window panes to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It blew me away. But let me quickly give credit to the professor, who used videos, practice tests, homework with a program that walked students step-by-step through how to work problems, and other techniques aside from throwing a random question on the board and expecting students to do math through magical osmosis. He answered any questions, promptly and thoroughly, no matter how “stupid” they may have seemed. I recommend him all the time, and most students have agreed with my assessment of his teaching skills. The ones that don’t are usually those who don’t bother to take advantage of all the practice and extra credit he offers (probably the same ones who botch my classes, too).

Thus–an example of how a teacher influenced me. No, let’s be honest–that’s a story of how a teacher royally screwed me over. She was a crappy, awful teacher who had no idea how to convey her subject. She may not have intentionally set out to mess with my mind and confidence, but she did, and she never displayed any empathy or compassion to her students. Let’s just say that I was fortunate enough to a) have other teachers that were a positive influence on me (the ones I’ve already named, plus my Latin teacher), and b) possess the metacognition to know how to master a subject I once thought I was absolutely incapable of understanding.

What’s next for me? Well, if I get the time, there’s calculus. And heck, maybe I’ll even give chemistry a try. I’m too old to change careers, but I’m living proof that you are never too old to learn…and master…something new.

Now, back to that novel I’m writing….