During the middle of my junior year in high school, my family moved to Houston, Texas and I became a student at Westbury High School. I knew no one in the building and began as a new student in January. It was the worst transition of any of the several transitions I made from school to school as a missionary kid.
I don’t remember if it was that semester or the next, but I do remember it in was Algebra II where I encountered the worst teacher I ever had. (I also remember her name but am choosing not to write it here.) During the middle of class, as she was explaining something, I raised my hand and asked a question because I didn’t understand.
“I don’t have time for stupid questions,” she said, and went on with the class.
In that moment, I decided I wasn’t good at math. I limped through the semester with a C and, since I had completed my requirement for graduation, never took another high school math class, convinced it was an equation I could not solve. Then came the ACT, which I needed to take to get into Baylor, and the math section. The scores came in the mail, and I opened the envelope to find I had made a 32 on the math section, enough to place out of my B. A. math requirement at Baylor. I never had another math teacher after her and I have spent most of my life convinced I don’t know how to do Algebra, which, for a guy who went on to major in History and teach English, is not the end of the world, but it’s not the truth.
For all the things that teacher did wrong, I have to come to terms with the choice I made under those circumstances. I decided I was no good at math. I capitulated to her bullying, if you will. And I continued to buy the lie, even when more reliable information came in after her time had passed. I’m not sure I would have turned in to the Texan forerunner of Good Will Hunting, but I sold myself short.
As a teacher, I remind myself of her most everyday not only because I don’t want to do the same kind of damage, but also because I imagine what she said to me was an incidental comment. She wasn’t gunning for me; it just felt that way on the receiving end. I know what it feels like to get to the end of the day and feel tired and exasperated, which is actually when I try to remember her most. I won’t feel any less exhausted or exasperated by unloading on one of the young people trapped in the room with me in my hour of darkness. Let it be. let it be.
I teach now in a school aimed at students who, as we say, have not been able to thrive in a conventional classroom. Most of them have either names or letters to identify their learning issues. Sometimes we speak of them in technological metaphors, talking about their processing abilities. The information matters and is often helpful, and I also wonder if it has unintended consequences. Even today, I handed out composition books and asked them to open to a fresh page and free write, as we say in English classrooms.
“I can’t write,” said the young man sitting to my left. And I was back in Algebra.
He struggles with writing, particularly by hand – that is true. He finds it easier to talk than write. Also true. His handwriting could be confused for hieroglyphics. Oh, yes. But he can write, and write pretty well when he chooses to step beyond belief in the limitations he has been handed. I’m not trying to push him to be a poet, still I don’t want to capitulate to “can’t.”
The other thing I have noticed about my students is they appear to be passionless. I am struggling to find something they are interested in doing, and I don’t mean just in English class. I asked them to fill out an interest survey intended to help me learn how they learn best, and several of them hardly checked off anything.
“I’m not interested in much,” one of them said.
“Why not?” I wanted to reply, but didn’t know how to do it unaccusingly. How can an eighth grader already have the curiosity kicked out of her? How can a ninth grader feel that life at his age has already peaked in interest? I can’t help but wonder if the lack of confidence is connected to the lack of curiosity. In my own experience, we seem most willing to fail at that which captures us.
I gave up on math, but not on writing. I don’t remember any high school teacher gushing over my prose or poetry, but I do remember feeling confident enough to keep playing with the words, asking questions, and writing and failing and writing again. The words mattered enough to me to be willing to fail.
And to find great pleasure.
It’s hard to talk about failure and not talk about the Red Sox. As September comes, those of us in Red Sox Nation stand poised to have our hearts broken once more or to have another story for the ages. This year’s team has been besieged by injuries, the nightly lineup looking more like their Triple-A farm club than their normal roster. Even the young ones know the story, it seems, because they keep showing up and giving their best. Wherever we finish in the standings come the first of October, we will talk about this season and the heart of this team.
And so I point to grown men playing a boy’s game to say to my young students who are old before their time, don’t lead with your limitations; feed your passions; ask questions; fail gloriously, more than once.
And I will listen to my own advice.