Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Against all reason, I teach math

I moved from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, to St. Louis, Missouri, in the middle of my first grade year. My parents had me tested and, back in the day, the answer to "what should we do with our bored smart girl?" was "Let's skip her up a grade."

So I started in a second grade classroom in south county in January. I loved Mrs. Chott, but I don't recall a single friend's name from that half-year in her classroom. What I do remember is Mad Minutes, those timed math facts papers.

They were my first taste of failure.

After my half year in second grade, I switched schools to a small Catholic school that is no more (so many of my schools are no more, it isn't fair). St. Bernadette's. Math was easy there. In fact, too easy. We moved again after 5th grade ended and when I walked into the math classroom in Columbia, Missouri, I was two years behind.

Two years! How do you ever catch up from two years? The girls I became quick friends with, the girls in my (top) reading group, were a year ahead of the class in math. Which meant I was THREE YEARS BEHIND my best friends.

I was ashamed by this like I had never been ashamed of anything. Ever.

My math teacher made a raw deal with me--I could take books home over Christmas break and finish big chunks of them and catch up with the average group. That was my challenge and I did it. I spent that Christmas break doing math.

So many three digit by two digit multiplication problems. So much long division.

So much long division that I taught myself.

I remember the satisfaction of turning in the work, and the remedial textbooks, to Mrs. Kruse. Moving my desk away from Bethany and Tim and Kyle and back into the normal zone of her classroom. (Which is a shitty way to split up a classroom, by the way).

In 8th grade, friends were shocked that I was in the average math class instead of Algebra. By this point, math was such a sticking point in my self-image that I didn't even try to engage. I soared in my Literature classes and Art and so forth. Math was a necessary evil. Like vaccinations or dental exams.

Ninth grade Algebra was taught by a football coach who never got up from his desk. Tenth grade down in Georgia was a skillful Geometry teacher and I decided that maybe I was a geometry person. I heard that folks tended to be one or the other. My junior and senior year math classes, in Houston, were spent at the mercy of a bright woman who knew math but could not teach it. I was a chapter behind most of those two years, and jealous of my smart friends who took the advanced classes from the physics teacher.

I wasn't good at math. I was good at many other things but not math.

So when my parish priest turned to me after mass one Sunday and asked if I'd be interested in interviewing for our parish school, for a math position, I said yes. Because I say yes a lot. It was only an interview. I liked my current job ok, although I feared teaching wasn't for me in the grand scheme of things. But I said yes because who knows what a yes can lead to?

I got the job. And I stood in front of a rough house of 8th graders who had driven the last math teacher right out the door.

I don't know where it came from, but I turned out to be pretty good at it. I taught them, and myself, middle school math.

And I liked doing it.

Kids in my class ask me, "What's your favorite subject? Is it math?" I always answer no, that my favorite subjects are literature, writing, and art. They give me funny looks.

"That's why I teach math," I try to explain. If they're young, I usually stop there. But 8th graders want more reasoning.

If I taught literature and all of you guys didn't fall to your knees over Ray Bradbury or Harper Lee, Lois Lowry or Langston Hughes, I would cry myself to sleep every night. I don't understand why someone wouldn't want to read, or even how reading could be frustrating and boring. But I get why math is hard. I know how it makes you feel stupid. I can feel the frustration of a wrong answer erased for the 3rd time on rough looseleaf paper and the futility of all these little rote tasks. I get it. I've been there. Math has been an acquired taste for me. I appreciate it, but I don't think I would ever love it. The thing is, you don't have to love it either. It won't hurt my feelings. We can still be friends.


  1. And again, I wish I could take math from you. This is a great post. I really didn't realize that you weren't always good at it. I had a horrific time, and I'm sure I've mentioned the geometry teacher who reseated us after every test according to our scores—a very shitty way to split up a classroom!

  2. I really love this. I love that you have taught yourself middle school maths. I am a great believer in teaching ourselves things, when we need to know them.

    Have I ever told my maths story when I was 12? (That's about 7th grade, right?) I'm not sure I ever truly recovered, and even though I was good at maths in subsequent years, I never had the confidence again. Which makes me sad.