Growth Spurt

I had an algebra teacher in the 9th grade who was hell on wheels. All these years later people still remember and talk about him on a Facebook page about teachers we had at that school. A couple of people count him as the greatest teacher they ever had. For most of us, however, his class was a fairly traumatic experience. Some of the stories my former classmates have related on Facebook are just horrifying, yet none of us remembers what everyone else endured. We were all too entrenched in “survival” mode combined with “holy-crap-algebra-is-hard” mode to notice. He was left-handed, and he would often write formulas/concepts on the chalkboard while yelling, “Come on high-schoolers, push those pencils, push those pencils!” As soon as he finished writing he would turn around and ask, “Got that? Good!” He’d immediately start erasing with his right hand, simultaneously writing a new formula or concept with his left. It was a brutal nightmare for most of us, ADHD or not.

For some reason, ninth graders thought it was cool to participate in “Senior Skip Day”. In those days the ninth grade was actually at the junior high school. Freshmen were the “top dogs” (we thought so, anyway). I’m not a huge advocate of skipping school, by the way, nor were school administrators. There were a lot of people planning to skip and a lot of administrators sending home dire warnings of what would happen if we did. I was one of those kids who was always terrified of getting in trouble, so I had every intention of showing up. Until a bad bout of bronchitis changed that.

The day after “skip day” I dragged my snotty, haggard self into the school office and presented a note from the doctor saying that I was officially ill. By the time I wandered into algebra my chest sounded like a garbage disposal, and pretty much felt like one every time I breathed, coughing with nearly every exhale. It should have been obvious to anyone with a pulse why I had missed the day before. Apparently, not to my algebra teacher. He refused to give me a copy of a crucial handout I had missed the day before. He let me suffer and squirm the entire fifty minutes, and just after the dismissal bell rang, he threw it at me and made some snarky comment about my thinking I was cool and I should have thought twice about skipping. Huh?

That afternoon he walked into the bank where my dad was a branch manager. My dad proudly asked, “How’s my girl doing?” His answer? “She’s never going to amount to anything.”  Nice.

For the first two years of college I went to a local junior college (it changed from “junior” college to “community” while I was there). When I was a sophomore I decided to get the dreaded speech class out of the way. One of the assignments we had was a mock job interview. We were to prepare notecards with answers to a specific set of questions (memorize answers, turn in notecards), put on our Sunday best, declare our career intentions, and be interviewed by the instructor in front of the class. I put on the dressiest thing I had – a long cotton skirt with a long white t-shirt, paint-stamped and belted around the hips with a scarf. I must have missed the memo, because I walked into a classroom full of students dressed in business suits. I sat down in the wobbly plastic chair across from my instructor, who proceeded to critique every aspect of my outfit, from the length of my skirt to the color of my shoes. Seems I should have been wearing shoes the same color as my skirt and carrying a purse to match the whole shebang. My banana-clipped hair was clearly not coiffed correctly. Not enough AquaNet, and my hot rollers had burned out two days before. The rest of the class was then invited to fill me in on my poor choice of wardrobe, as well.

I don’t know which was worse, my mid-term speech or my final one. I have to say up front that student comments weighed very heavily on the overall grade for each speech. My mid-term was on the Chernobyl disaster. I did a lot of research at my hometown library when I went home for the weekend. There was no internet then. Instead of parking myself in front of a dumb terminal or a laptop clicking through links on Google, I was rotting in front of a micro-fiche machine scrolling through old copies of newspaper articles. Despite all the resources I had, half my classmates accused me on their comment cards of making it up, and the other half thought it was boring and too scientific. “Tree hugger” was a frequent phrase on the majority of the comment cards. Grade: F.

For my final speech we were to write about a current event. It was the fall of 1988, so I chose to write about the fact that one of the individuals running for President was David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the KKK. I was as stunned by his audacity as my instructor and classmates were of mine. It never occurred to me that people wouldn’t see anything wrong with the concept of a Klansman sitting in the Oval Office. The instructor asked me where on earth I got my information (see microfiche reference in the above paragraph) and actually said (no, I’m not making this up for effect), “How dare you talk about David Duke like that! He is a great! Man! And you have no right to tear him down like that!” Grade: F.

Thank God for the written exams that I did halfway decent on. I managed to pass with a D.

My point in relating these sad sob stories of my youth is not to make anyone feel sorry for me (unless you want to send me gifts of dark chocolate). This post is meant to serve as a reminder to consider others’ “stories” or backgrounds before judging so harshly. It is my way of asking others to consider what words can do to someone else, however well-meaning or passionately spoken they are. In those three examples I felt humiliated and powerless, and they added to a pile of growing incidents that were slowly wearing me down, making me wonder why I even bothered, and daring me to just give up and quit while I was ahead.

It never occurred to my algebra teacher that I needed to go a tiny bit slower and digest things in pieces. It never dawned on my speech teacher that I was wearing the best I had, what I could afford, and that it would be ridiculous to ask an eighteen year old college student to purchase business attire for the sole purpose of a mock interview. As a former teacher, I am appalled at her inability to see the need to stop the vitriol that was spewing in my direction. Then again, how could she when she was also a participant?  It is stunning to think that a teacher would ask a student to write a persuasive essay, read a speech on it, and then proceed to tear apart not her inability to properly read or give a speech, but the content and opinions within it. Isn’t that the point of persuasive writing?

It’s possible my algebra teacher is no longer living. He was in his late fifties or early sixties at the time, and that was in 1983 or 1984. Either way, I still won’t say his name here. When I received my M.Ed. (my second Master’s Degree) my dad wanted me to photocopy it and mail it directly to my old algebra teacher. My college speech teacher? I’m horrified to report she’s actually still teaching in South Mississippi. She was also the drama teacher and, though she’s no longer with the community college I attended, she’s still teaching drama and putting on workshops. She even won some kind of an award. Since she’s clearly nowhere near retiring and I don’t want to get sued (or give her any extra attention), I won’t mention her name either. If she was attempting to stop me from speaking up for what I believe in, she was successful for a little while. I learned that my views weren’t necessarily popular ones in South Mississippi and the time and a place for expressing them was next to impossible to find. If her goal was to actually force me to regurgitate her own views, she failed miserably. My dad had far more influence over me anyway, and he taught my sister and me to speak our minds and be confident about what we believed in. He taught us that it didn’t matter if nobody else agreed with us, as long as what we believed was based in truth and facts.

I had lunch with someone yesterday who reminded me that the only way to grow is to step outside your comfort zone, and she was absolutely right. The purpose of the stories above can’t only be to keep others in check, they are to keep me in check, too. How can I ask people I don’t agree with to take time to look, to feel, to try to understand where I’m coming from or to look past the surface and find the humanity in the stories and backgrounds of others if I refuse to do the same for people with whom I don’t always agree? I, too, need to try and see past viewpoints or statements that make my brain hurt and try to understand the genesis of those beliefs.

I may not be as “accomplished” as some and I may not be doing what other people think I should be, but I really don’t care. I’ve got my own life to live, not anyone else’s. I really love this “place” I’m in right now, which means I’m getting a bit too comfortable. It’s time step outside my comfort zone, learn to listen, understand, withhold judgement, and grow again.

Childish fantasy: Instead of Lloyd Dobler, this would be me in front of the homes of my algebra and speech teachers. Instead of “Your Eyes” they’d be hearing Toby Keith’s “How Do You Like Me Now”.

4 Comments

  1. Yes, I remember your Algebra teacher well. He would come into my branch and use his better than thou attitude and treat my employees in a sub-serviant manner. When he told me that you would never do well in life he was at the drive-in window and his words were head all over the bank. His problem was that his two sons never lived up to his expectations. I am proud of the fact that you always worked hard, never cheated, and earned all of your own grades.

  2. I could hear him when you wrote that!! And I can still feel where a certain cousin who sat behind me kept poking me in the shoulder asking me to explain! 🙂 The only reason I did fairly decent in that class is because it was my second attempt at algebra.

  3. Dave… after almost 30 years I still cringe, too!

    Poppie… I can still feel your ire toward him and feel your love and pride toward me in your comment. That man was a little troll who traumatized a lot of people. I’m proud of me, too. I earned everything I’ve ever had and I did it honestly!

    Tara… I think you might have been the only reason I passed. I’m surprised we didn’t get busted more often for talking, even though it was always about algebra. I’ll cop to all the “visiting” in the other classes we had together, but algebra was all business. I think it’s the only time my parents were ever happy to see a “C” on my report cards. They were just as relieved as I was that it was over. I wound up taking summer school before tenth grade because I knew I’d have to take Algebra 2 and I learned/retained absolutely nothing that horrible man “taught” and I would be royally screwed. But look at us now, woman!!

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