I realized the other day that there aren't a lot of stories on my blog.
Once upon a time...
I had the same teacher for 7th and 8th grade math. That's because I took pre-algebra both years. I didn't actually fail it the first time around, but I am not very good with numbers, so I didn't really understand it well enough to move on to regular algebra.
Her name was Jan Aldridge. I have looked for her online several times and I believe that she moved on to Texas High School after they closed the middle school I had attended. They actually condemned most of the buildings, which didn't really surprise me. I've never been able to get any contact information for Ms. Aldridge, which saddens me. Having taught middle school for a year, I would love to send her a letter of thanks.
Like I said, I wasn't particularly good at math. When I got stuck on something, or didn't know what to do next, I generally just made up some rule. Poor Ms. Aldridge would ask me, "WHy did you do that?" and I would say, "Because of the understood one?" The truth is that I did it because I didn't really know what I was supposed to be doing. I tried to pay attention in class and I was completely lost. It wasn't like they were speaking another language, it was more like they all had some basic understanding that I never picked up. They would start discussing algebra and functions and trigonometry and I would understand the first part and then all logic and reason collapsed for me. I understood that A + B = C but then X would get involved and I didn't know where X came from or how to figure out what it was.
I often think of Ms. Aldridge when I am trying to teach my own children a new skill:
"Put the toys in the box, Caroline." I say.
"I not want to."
I put a toy in her hand. "Put this in the box."
Another toy in her hand. "Put this in the box."
"Now, put the toys in the box."
"I too little!"
Instead it went more like this:
"Chara, solve this problem."
"I don't know where to start."
"PEMDAS, Chara. Parenthesis, exponents, multiplication and division, addition and subtraction. Start here in the parenthesis."
"So I work out the insides of the parenthesis, first?"
When we would find an answer she would always tell us to look back at the problem and ask ourselves if the answer made sense. None of the answers made sense to me. How could you start with a letter and end up with a number? How could you start with a jumble of unknowns and end up so sure about what it all meant?
Otherwise, Ms. Aldridge was a lovely woman. She was in her forties at the time, and clearly going through menopause. Her classroom always had a great big wall of windows and even in the middle of winter she would have them all thrown wide open to keep her cool. When students would complain she would tell them to bring a jacket the next time.
Generally she was a patient woman, explaining inscrutable rules to hormonally charged children who were often not interested or highly distracted by the social situation around them. She did occasionally lose her temper, but given her job, it's a miracle she didn't do it more often. I do remember one occasion in particular, though. Once, a boy named Travis smarted off in class about how math stunk. I don't remember what he said exactly, but I know what Ms. Aldridge said. She told him that he had a nasty attitude and then she read him this quote:
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company... a church... a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you... we are in charge of our Attitudes.”It is a quote from Charles Swindoll and I have never forgotten what she said to him that day. She did not say it quietly or with saint-like patience. She read it passionately. She meant it. Our entire lives would hinge on the choice we made every day to have or to not have a good attitude. If math stunk, it was not because we hadn't masted it yet; it was because we had a stinky attitude about it.
The truth is that Middle School boys generally have crummy attitudes and math isn't the easiest subject but it was on that day, toward the end of my 8th grade year, that I realized that pre-algebra wouldn't kill me. In fact, I had started to understand it a little bit. I didn't make up answers while crossing my fingers. When I got an answer wrong, we could usually figure out where I had gotten off track, or which multiplication sum I'd figured wrong. Ms. Aldridge wasn't having to show me how to do the same things over and over again. In fact, I actually helped some of the other students in the class because I was finally able to explain what had been explained to me for almost two years.
What adds up in life is sometimes unexpected. I can't always explain how 2A + 7 = 345, but I do not find myself so resistant to the idea that it can get there.