Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Third Grade

I’m taking a break today from studying for the GRE for the sole reason that my brain still hurts from yesterday’s attempt to relearn third-grade arithmetic. The GRE prep book stupidly assumes that math-a-phobes like me readily remember how to do simple problems involving long division. I had to go online to an elementary math website to do a refresher that practically involved “how many baby ducks do you get when you take away five baby ducks from ten baby ducks.” My first answer was four baby ducks.

I was literally tearing my hair out (I could tell because when I looked in the mirror my hair was standing straight up) over simple percentages, when in walked T, who calmly looked at the practice drill and said “is this all they want you to know for the GRE? I could do this.” This was not very encouraging. I showed her what I was having trouble with; she took my pencil, and without any hesitation solved four problems in as many seconds. My jaw locked into the gape position. “You did that without even writing anything down,” I said. “Oh, yes, but I am quite good at math, I got a 790 out of 800 on the SAT,” she replied. She doesn’t know this yet, but she is going to be my tutor for the next three months.

I don’t know what turned me off on math. It is probably because I am left-brained, or right-brained, or lame-brained or whatever, but I suspect that it has something to do with my third grade teacher Mrs. Morrison. Every subject I ever had trouble with in school stems from Mrs. Morrison. Mrs. Morrison ruined my life, and if it wasn’t for her I would surely be fixing the terrible mess in our country, sending Alberto Gonzales to Gauntanimo Bay, finishing up impeachment procedures against George W. Bush, inventing an environmentally friendly sustainable source of energy, successfully convincing extremist Muslims that a couch-potato Midwestern bubba is not the Great Satan, and otherwise having an academically secure outlook on life. But, Mrs. Morrison made sure I become a bowl of half-congealed Jell-O every time I try to balance my checkbook or name the capital of Bulgaria.

You see, she was intimidating. When you brought your work up for her to check, she would look at you like Levrenty Beria, cold and unflinching, completely unmoved by the fact that you had done exactly what they told you to do in second-grade, you had “tried your best.” She deemed a large masterpiece I completed depicting an admiral on a very realistic sailboat insufficient because I hadn’t colored in a patch of sky with my blue crayon. It was too daunting an undertaking to tell her that the blank space was a cloud, and that Tommy Donatello had taken the blue crayon and thrown it across the room at Angie Bowman. I felt that Mrs. Morrison had it in for me. This may be where I picked up my persecution complex as well.

Part of the problem was Mrs. Haith. Mrs. Haith was my second-grade teacher and she was everything Mrs. Morrison was not. Fortunately she had met my parents and held my father in high esteem because of his history professor status. Mrs. Haith loved history, she had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement which, at that time, wasn’t such a long time ago. (I believe it is still going on, especially after this Supreme Court debacle, but I am talking about the core years during the fifties and sixties). She was very proud of the fact that she had met John F. Kennedy personally, and brought it up on a regular basis, but with such warmth and affection that JFK soon took on a hero status in the classroom.

The affection Mrs. Haith had for my parents helped me in a way, but may have hurt me in the long run. I became a pet of sorts. I, along with a pigtailed girl name Elizabeth, sat in the front of the class. Mrs. Haith gave us special duties such as leading the class to the lunch room or sharpening pencils. I don’t know why the class saw manual labor as a sign of status, but when Tommy Donatello got his chance at pencil sharpening, he lorded over the task like he had been given the keys to the kingdom (all the pencils came back stubby, broken, and cracked.)

So at the end of the second-grade, Mrs. Haith recommended me for the advanced program for my third-grade year. My parents must have been proud, and my success in the second-grade quelled any misgivings about my academic future—for the time being. I was happy too, and true to a nature that persists to this day, I became cocky, bragging to my fellow second-graders, especially my best friend Barth. Barth didn’t care; he was a good natured kid, free from envy and persistently happy.

I may have had apprehensions about starting the third grade, but I can’t quite remember. All I know for sure is that I didn’t read the hand-out for supplies I needed for that first day. This was not going to be like the second-grade, where the school provided most of the material for you, and I took this all for granted.

Mrs. Morrison’s favorite classroom tool was the overhead projector, and to this day, when a professor uses one, I think of her and feel butterflies. The transparencies were whipped on and whipped off with the precision of a fascist train-station, and it was totally up to the student to copy the problems down before the next transparency came whipping onto the projector. God help you if you fell behind.

Mrs. Morrison started right in on the first day. The projector was warm and ready, and as she started shuffling transparencies I realized that all of the students were busy copying math problems in their notebooks. They had notebooks. Notebooks! I might have had a pencil but a notebook had never crossed my mind. I distinctly remember wanting to crawl back to Mrs. Haith to tell her I’m wasn’t ready for this. I sheepishly asked the kid next to me for a couple of sheets of paper and he glared at me and handed some over. I maintained pariah status from that point on.

The first day summed up the rest of the year. I struggled through, but my grades were abysmal. One day, while waiting for the bus, Barth grabbed my report card out of my hand before I could conceal it and started rolling on the ground laughing. I got him in a head-lock, but let him go because he just still kept on laughing. Luckily, my parents took my side after a time, and, after meeting Mrs. Morrison themselves, came to the conclusion that she was not a good teacher. Now I’m not so sure. I do know that her personality was about as dynamic as a pile of cinder-blocks and she had no talent for motivating her students, but part of the problem might have been me, wanting to believe that school was always going to be like Mrs. Haith’s class. No, Mrs. Morrison did not ruin my life, but she did wake me to the idea that life is tough so I had better be prepared--with a notebook at least.


linser said...

Don't you think there ought to be some kind of rule that people with bully patterns should be banned from certain jobs, e.g. prison guards, chefs, and third grade teachers?

Charlotte said...

She does sound like a bit of a monster, and your story of disillusionment is a sad one. I had a Scottish monster who put me off math too. I'm still convinced I could do math, but school proved otherwise.

imichie said...

Linser, I do think there should be a rule against bullies in certain professions. Mrs. Morrison was less a bully and more a humorless, taciturn plutocrat.

Charlotte, maybe I wrote this post to get to the source of my apprehension in order to overcome my phobia of math. We'll see if it works. I do know that when I have small successes when studying it is extremely gratifying.

Froshty said...

Two teachers in my past left me convinced that I was an idiot--Mrs. Johnson in 5th grade and Sister Rita in 11th and 12th grade. Mrs. Johnson was the worst kind of bully, because she could snow parents and convince them that their child was not only an underachiever, but a liar to boot. I don't remember much about 5th grade except that she was obsessed with the Civil War and teaching us about discrimination, which is highly ironic because she had pets and if you weren't one, you were doomed. Sister Rita was so scary and frightening that I became convinced that I was hopeless at chemistry and physics. I remember the day I set my hair on fire in chemistry lab vividly, because after it was over, she applauded my decision to try to become a lawyer because she said I was no good at science. Interestingly, years later I had to learn some basic chemistry and physics for a job I had and I found out that I wasn't hopeless but Sister Rita had died by then, so I couldn't tell her. Mrs. Johnson, I'm sorry to say, was given the Teacher of the Year award the year after I had her. Life is funny sometimes.

imichie said...

Thanks Froshty for that story. I believe I can do this math thing. Your comment helps a lot.

Emily Barton said...

All the stories about horrible teachers that turned brilliant people off math always get me (now that I'm an editor of books for teachers meant to fight that). Part of the problem is teachers who don't really understand the math themselves, so can't really teach it, and all their insecurities seem to manifest themselves through intimidation of students. Then, there are those like Herr Rullman (another horrible math teacher), who understand the math and have some sort of inner need to laud that over everyone else, including the students they should be helping to understand it but don't.

imichie said...

Emily, I think math just puts so many people under strain. Teaching it and learning it creates an atmosphere of collective stress in the classroom. I wonder if retired teachers have phobias about teaching math like former students do about learning it. Perhaps your authors can take the stress factor out of the process. That would be great.

Sarah said...

I hate the GREs. I've taken them twice (I was one of the last paper exams and then I had to retake them because they expired). I'll most likely have to take a third test to see if I can boost that math score a bit more. The thing that makes me angry about the math in the GREs is that it's not the math I took in college. I haven't done geometry since freshmen year of high school. Math in college was calculus 2 and problem sets for physics (I was a lit/geology double major for a while). Triangles? Percents? One word: flashcards. It really helps and you can totally do this! (and think, then you'll be done for a long while!)

imichie said...

Thanks Sarah, that is totally encouraging. My biggest obstacle is procrastination. The book sits right next to me, unopened, as I have been busy writing a post. Flashcards have been enormously helpful for other classes, and I will definitely take you advice, and possibly ask for more as I get nearer to the date.

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