Some of my greatest lessons learned from teachers came from – both my own and my daughters’ – of whom I didn’t like.
Over a span of 16 years, my family received over 36 “open house” cards announcing teachers and schedules. Among the many great teachers, there were some not-so-great ones. Since I wanted my girls to learn how to adapt in any given situation, I rarely marched up to a school to demand a teacher or schedule change; trust me, I often wanted to, but I refrained, always holding my breath, remembering my own academic heartaches. Like most families, we had our drama. Take three girls, each unique in their own right; a mom working 50 to 60 hours a week; and a divorced family: We had some academic nightmares. There were nights we all slammed doors and cried over the math problems, made three pans of flan (burning sugar in pan after pan trying to make a 3-D molecule for a science project), and suffered through technology issues before the notion of email was ever mainstream. We had a few late papers because I couldn’t get the printer working; heaven help us, we only had one and it was the size of the kitchen table. Needless to say, I eagerly employed tutors and utilized outside support systems. It does take a village.
One daughter used to walk to her fourth grade teacher’s house for tutoring three summer mornings a week, studying ahead for better results in fifth grade. I dropped off another at 7:30 a.m. every morning where her teacher also started her day an hour early to help my child, and we still suffered through Geometry. I went to Waffle House once a week with our youth minister just to laugh, cry and pray with someone who knew and loved the hearts of my children. And I’ll admit it: smothered and fried felt right many mornings.
Fast-forward 14 years. I ran into one of my daughter’s eighth grade teachers at the Peachtree City Farmer’s Market, where she asked what my child was now doing 15 years later.
She seemed surprised to hear my daughter had earned a master’s degree. Her response washed all over me, like a sudden rain shower. I remembered her kind but low expectations she shared for my child’s future academic career on her end-of-year report card. Then my own latent math anxiety surfaced, and I thought of Mr. Gray, my high school Algebra teacher. I’ll show you, rolled in my thoughts as I tested the firmness of tomatoes at the next tent. I will never forget his name, his crass demeanor, or his impact on my own academic endeavors.
Two-step back with me to south Texas, 1978. Our town was a stop off coastal inlet for those headed towards the Texas-Mexico border, for beachcombers, oil workers or deep-sea fishermen. I remember going to school with the car A/C at full blast and never cooling down. My Izod collar would be wet with sweat before I reached homeroom. I would meet my friends in the bathroom, where we spruced up our feather bangs with Aqua Net hairspray, marrying the goo with the humidity. We listened to the Cars, Boston, and Eddie Rabbit at lunchtime and drove to the beach on the weekends, counting down the days when we would end up anywhere but our hometown.
In our school, if a student was placed in one college-bound course (what they now consider Advanced Placement coursework), that would secure you a spot in all advanced subjects, like somewhere a school counselor missed the memo that you should just be in advanced History, or English. I had no business being in Advanced Placement Algebra; Mr. Gray knew who could handle his course and those of us who could not. He could sense out his own kind — those who get math and those who don’t. They have their own secret language and handshake. Really, they do.
A balding, wiry man in his mid-30s, Mr. Gray practiced minimalism in every way: a sparse classroom, nothing but cement walls painted white, a long green chalkboard, and a penchant for blue chalk. His speech: shorter than his formulas, and shorter than his explanations. His coursework was simple – a pop quiz with only two problems administered every day, five days a week; a mid-term; and a final.
The problem with a daily two-question pop quiz is that you could make only one of three grades: a 100, a 50, or a zero.
Each morning, he relished passing out the quizzes from the highest grade to the lowest grade. I sat in the front with my friend (I’ll call her Jean Floyd), hoping that somehow sitting in the front of the classroom counted for something – a good attitude, a willingness to learn (it had worked in Chemistry).
Day after day, he passed out those quizzes, making sure we all knew who received the zeroes.“And we have Mahoney. And Floyd.” Another day: “I’ll shake it up today: Here’s Floyd’s. Here’s Mahoney’s.”
Day after day, I got zeros on pop quizzes. He even let us get away with writing the formula on the desk, clearly cheating. I still made a zero. My only salvation, my only consolation, my only shred of academic self-esteem was the fact that there were about three of us who always got zeros. It is true, misery loves company.
One day, Mr. Gray was particularly exasperated with our section of the classroom that had mentally checked out after the return of the last pop quiz. He took his long chalkboard eraser, full of blue chalk residue, and threw it at us. It landed right in front of our desks, a cloud of blue chalk echoing his disgust through the classroom air, the insults settling in our hearts. Floyd, a strikingly beautiful redhead, gathered her spunk and picked up the eraser and threw it back at him, while firing a few choice words that are everyday vernacular for a New York taxicab driver. I followed her, and just stood in front of him and with the courage displayed by Floyd, said something like, “I may not get this **%^$#, but I am still a person.”
I followed Floyd out the door, slamming it behind us. We sent ourselves to the principal’s office where we asked to be expelled. I wanted no part of Mr. Gray, Algebra, or college if it meant college course work would be conducted in such a manner. I dreamed of a cottage in the woods where I would write stories and poetry, or a newsroom where I could write about the injustices of the world. What did algebra formulas that took up an entire sheet of paper have to do with children suffering in Uganda?
Of course, I didn’t quit high school, and I went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in English from a small midwest college that offered plenty of support for math and science homework. What I learned from Mr. Gray was not the algebra formulas, but how to stand up for myself. Somewhere within the direct conflict, and the internal conflict I learned to value my strengths and give extra time to my weaknesses.
As I unloaded my veggies from the market, I realized something, something beyond my dinner plans: Mr. Gray was part of my village when I raised my girls.
As a parent, I made a point to reiterate the importance of individuality. As school tests came back for signatures, and standardized test scores were compared on the bus, I reminded each with unconditional love that it is okay if she didn’t love math. Really. Not all mathematicians are happy, creative people.
My girls earned respectable educations and experienced the love of some awesome teachers, peppered with a few learning opportunities. Each daughter graduated from a top-notch college and lives honestly within her talents. Each pays her fair share of income tax with a career she loves.
I’d like to say it was easy. I’d like to say we are all better people for what we have endured throughout the years. I’d like to say I stayed out of the way, but I didn’t; one child had a “Mr. Gray” in her freshman year and I did write letters, sat in offices waiting to be noticed. Our rescheduling request was denied; the vice principal reasoned that my daughter was neither excelling enough to be placed higher, nor flunking enough to be placed lower. A teacher’s put-downs were not part of the equation.
Instead, I took my daughter out for pizza, shared with her my Mr. Gray story, and we both felt better. She felt better just being understood, and I was ready to rumble with her teacher if I had to. I just wish I could have called Floyd, and she would dash over with her red hair bouncing, cheering me on.
In our family we adopted our own math formula: (Grace + Determination)2 + Personal Acceptance – Any Shame = Productive Living. I just need to remember it each day. Here’s to you, Mr. Gray, and all those like you out there. We do love math.