Please don’t call on me. Please don’t call on me. This was my daily mental mantra during his math class in sixth grade. I had a history with this man and had hoped to never be his student again.
Previously I was in one of his classes in second grade, and I had gone from being an avid reader with great pronunciation skills to not being able to comprehend sentences. I began to bring home extra work to do with my mom to improve my understanding. She noticed that I was not struggling as she and I worked together. After a couple of these sessions, she said to me,
“I don’t think you like your teacher.”
“No. I don’t.”
My seven year old mind could not articulate clearly why I did not like him. I just knew I didn’t. In hindsight, it was my first experience with being intimidated, but I didn’t understand it. It wasn’t that he was a male teacher as much as his attitude about being of that gender. I recall seeing him flirt with the young female teacher across the hall, and in an instant his demeanor would become harsh with the children in his room. He was unpredictable, and I never knew when I would meet his approval or not. He put me on edge, and I always felt his anger simmering below the surface. To add to my fear, he towered over me. One of my brothers was just as tall, but it was the way this man glared at me from above that made me cower.
During our one on one reading sessions he would often laugh and ridicule those who were not pronouncing words correctly. He would use another student to ‘correct’ the one who was making a fool of himself. It was a form of public humiliation amongst the peers. Not being able to take the pressure, I shut myself down and with that my favorite subject became my most difficult. My voice, that once was strong, became small and weak with the idea that he was going to lash out and make me feel horrible about myself. The best part of my day was when our hour of reading with him was over, and I returned to my home room next door.
When second grade ended, I wasn’t only glad to welcome in the freedom of summer but to be away from him forever. Forever lasted until the sixth grade. He picked up right where we had left off. This time, he was my math instructor which wasn’t my best subject. His eyes would scan the room looking for his prey to call up to the board. Hands across the room would fly up, but I always put my hands under my desk to be sure there was no mistaking my desire to stay seated. Regardless, he would pick me. I never got used to being in front of the entire class sweating over the board trying to appease him only to be interrupted. I would just begin to write and he would snap.
“No! That’s already wrong. Go sit down.” I would quietly put the chalk back in its place while he would then call upon his star math student who would go up and show us all how it was to be done.
“Now, that is perfect,” he would say shooting me a satisfied sadistic smile.
The worst part was the homework. He would hand out our assignment and expect it back by the end of the day. For a person who caught on to numbers quickly this would have been easy. But, I had such a mental block, partially due to him making me feel stupid, I needed the extra time in the evenings to complete the work. If a student didn’t turn in the homework of the day, then she was expected to ask him permission to take it home and turn it in the next morning. Every day I made the short but long walk to his door to ask if I could have an extension. It was a ritual short of bowing and kissing a ring on his hand. Some afternoons when he was preoccupied with impressing some of his young female students, I would get a head nod followed by a grunt. Other times, he would torture me with tormenting questions.
“Can I take my math work home tonight?” I would squeak.
“Again? Why can’t you get it done during the day like everyone else?” He knew full well I needed the extra time. After making me feel like an absolute idiot, I would finally get the approval to take my work home.
One day, as I walked slowly down the hall, I noticed him standing in his classroom doorway facing his students. He was quiet and so was the entire class. Looking back now, I should have known to just turn around and forget it, but I didn’t realize what I was walking into. As I neared him, he began to yell at the top of his lungs.
“I told you all to shut up, and I mean it! I don’t want to hear another word until the bell rings!” His voice echoed off the walls around me. Sensing I was behind him, he whirled around. Screaming in my face he said,
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?” Spit flew from his mouth and his eyes were crazy looking.
“I need to take my math home….” I think I actually whispered my request.
“I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU DO!”
He spun on his heel and slammed the door so hard that the floor beneath my feet shook. I ran back to my class. When I came in the door, my teacher asked,
“Are you okay, Christine?”
I kept my head down and nodded. He looked at me for awhile like he wasn’t so convinced. I don’t know how he hadn’t heard the commotion out in the hallway, but I was so paralyzed with fear I could not speak.
I left elementary school and went on to middle school, high school and college bearing the unseen scars that he inflicted. I was amazed by the other kids who could whip out math answers while I struggled over each and every problem. I had a teacher tell my mom at a conference that he felt sorry for me because he could see that I really wanted to comprehend the material but it just didn’t stick. Something was blocking my ability to get to the right answer. When she told me this I must have been touched by it because on the next test I whizzed through it. By the end of that year I had gotten a low B in his class.
The damage wasn’t just confined to school. If I was with a group of people playing a game where a score needed to be tallied, and I was questioned on my accuracy, I would immediately say,
“I am bad at math.” I was merely verbalizing the thought I was having twenty-four seven.
Usually I hadn’t made an error, but due to early childhood programming by a bully math teacher, I constantly defaulted to what I thought was true. If the person in my social circle was somewhat aggressive, I found myself thinking for certain I was at fault and he or she was right. I was continuing to exist as a sixth grade math student.
The pattern of living this way began to dissolve when I decided to home school my daughter. I knew that I was going to excel with instructing her on reading, writing, spelling and basic math, but there was the nagging question if I had what it took to effectively teach math at the sixth grade level or higher. The summer before she was to begin that grade, a packet came in the mail that included a math placement test. Before I gave the exam to her, I took it. I was shocked to see that I scored rather high. Calculations that would have been confusing made absolute sense. How had I become one of those kids that I had envied so much?
That is when I realized how my thinking was not correct on this matter. There were other hints along the way, but I had brushed them off quickly because after all, “I was bad at math.”
When I began to home school, I purposefully bought a math curriculum that used a hands on approach to teaching not only basics but also some geometric and algebraic principles. As I showed her the logic to solving equations, I began to understand that I had not been taught properly. I was slowly beginning to see that I was not the stupid idiot I thought I was. I actually had not been given good instructions nor was I treated like I should have been.
This made me begin to question what other lies I was believing about myself that were not true, and I made a determination to begin an ‘uncovering’ process to free myself from deceptive thinking. This meant asking God to reveal whatever wasn’t right so I could correct it. After all, it is promised that ‘all crooked paths will be made straight.’ I am realizing that this is an ongoing process.
This man was in my life more than 36 years ago. And all these years later I can conjure up his face, his words and his demeanor. The difference, however, is that I no longer believe him. I have put a loving arm around my sixth grade self, and I have told her,
“You are good at math. Problem solved.”