Math, Failure, Motivation and Redemption


Through my public school education I was one of those students who perennially got the ,”does not work up to potential,” comments on his report card usually followed by a ,”does not play well with others.”  My educational sloth aside somehow I ended up in an advanced math class in 8th grade where they taught you beginning geometry and algebra  in one year. I learned nothing in either half of the year because I was totally unmotivated and lazy which at the end of my 8th grade year  effectively put me two years behind because I had not only not learned the advanced materials I hadn’t learned the regular materials either.  Mr. Moberly, my junior high teacher was a fun, interesting and I think good teacher and he must have liked me because  he gave me a D in algebra and geometry that year both of which were pure gifts or depending on your outlook pure poison. Then in high school Mrs. Biddle was my math teacher for Algebra II. I was slightly more motivated,  but still unskilled and unprepared for higher level math and it was already clear that the advanced math class I had been placed in was for me a total failure. When I requested a return to regular math the school administration  in a possible bow to  the scientific method told me that  I was required to remain in the advanced class through 10th grade.   I guess I was probably functioning as a sort of control group lab rat, you know the one that doesn’t get the miracle drug and later dies,  but is still valuable as a comparison with others.

In truth I just  didn’t do homework for any reason in high school or my first year and a half of college except under threat of failing. That all changed when the college administration sent me a letter telling me to shape up or ship out after the first semester of my sophomore year. Understandable of course as I had completed the first semester of my sophomore year with a stellar .064 grade point giving them a  good reason to send the letter even though during that semester I did become an accomplished billiards, pool and bridge player. This coupled with a letter from my brother who was serving in  Viet Nam at the time stating that I should avoid Viet Nam if I could, got my attention and I began to develop some educational understandings that had previously escaped  my notice.

Back to high school and to Ms. Biddle, soon after high school started I was failing Algebra II. I had no foundation; not much skill and very little motivation.  Mrs Biddle  tried valiantly to help me after school on lots of days,  usually by her request. Finally in the late spring Mrs. Biddle in frustration,  finally very subtly and kindly offered to give me a D in Algebra II if I promised to never take another math class during high school (probably knowing that she had a 50% chance of having me in her class again). I promised and she actually gave me a C-.

My college career followed a somewhat parallel path which to a certain extent was not all my fault.  My college algebra teacher was Mr. Shu who had just arrived in the US from Taiwan, did not speak English very well and was working as an instructor in the math department only as a pathway to an advanced math degree.  His teaching technique was rather direct, on Monday he would present a concept on Wednesday we would review and do additional problems in class.  Then at the end of class on Wednesdays he always asked , “Does everyone understand?” to which a group of dumb freshman always responded with a befuddled silence.  After the silence he would always say, ” Good!, we go on.” On Friday we would have a quiz which apparently he never graded as I passed the course.    We finished the book before the mid-term test. Cementing my already weak math background firmly into solid concrete. Once again I just barely passed his course  although I did seek help from Mr. Shu once it was not too fruitful. I arrived at his office one day which was a standard math office at the time,  long and narrow with a black board covering one whole wall and desks against the other. When I arrived at his door he was studying an equation that covered the blackboard from top to bottom and ran the whole length of the black board probably around 30 feet. I was there  for help with something like x + 2 = 6 and when I asked my question he said, continuing to walk slowly up and down the lenth of the room, room never taking his eyes off the equation on the board, “first, you help me find the problem with my equation then I help you with yours.”  I stood for several minutes looking in vain for even one number amongst the unrecognizable symbols, brackets and operators on the board and then left quietly as his eyes continued to move restlessly from value to value on the board, having I am sure forgotten that I was even in the room.    The second semester of my freshman year I signed up for the continuation of the algebra class and chose one that stuck out on the schedule because it met Monday, Tuesday,and Wednesday(MTW) instead of the standard every other day(MWF) .  It was a stroke of genius as I had by accident signed up for the class normally reserved for varsity athletes  It met MTW as that would allow them to be gone from Thursday to Monday on road trips without missing any classes. It soon  became clear that although it was a real class it functioned under some less stressful parameters than other classes and the instructor actually functioned as a teacher.  For the first time in my life since 4th grade I actually learned something in a math class. I struggled the next year with trigonometry but survived because in the world of slide rules trig was largely looking things up and applying them.   The next semester I  ran into my Waterloo with Calculus. “Why,” you might ask was a math idiot taking calculus?  I only took calc because it was a requirement for a geology degree which was probably my proper  and best fit of the 5 different majors I declared for in college. Perhaps it takes someone as dense as a rock to like them.   I later took calculus once more  at Iowa and once at Drake and never got past about the 5th week before I withdrew.  If I could have passed it I would have a geology degree and my life might have changed dramatically.  I believe I might be able to  pass calculus now after teaching algebra for quite a few years  but will probably not make the attempt although it is tempting.

The Interesting thing about this is the fact that  I ended up teaching math  through algebra for a good portion of my teaching career. I still don’t believe that I am very good at math, workman like, I can teach it, but I can’t create it or bring the full  understanding  or intuitive grasp to the classroom that I would like to have.  I do love working with numbers now, teaching math and exposing kids to the  pathways through math that real mathematicians use and enjoy. Like the game of chess I’m not patient enough or disciplined enough to play the math game extremely well but I do enjoy the pursuit.

Maybe through the students in my math classes  I have in some way repaid Mr. Moberly and Mrs. Biddle for their efforts and patience with me in school. I now understand that math was their love and that I was too stupid as a teenager to see or understand, that when someone shows you what they love that you need to return it or at the very least respect it. A true teaching lesson if I have ever had one.

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About safrisri

I was a school teacher until retirement. I have taught at all educational levels from pre-school to college. My college degree is general science which I arrived at after 5 years and 5 different majors. A degree as it turns out, almost as valuable and in demand as one in Neo-Bulgarian Mythology. I have been around education for around 40 years and can remember when teaching was a pleasant, happy and creative job and our schools were the same. Now I'm the guy sitting on the porch with an opinion on everything.
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