The summer before I started high school, our family moved to Louisiana from Kentucky. My first year of high school was miserable. Not only was I a shy girl who didn’t know a soul, but the Louisiana humidity and classrooms without air-conditioning just about did me in. My Biology teacher spent the majority of each class preaching against pre-marital sex, and the three years I had just spent in Kentucky trying to learn how to dribble and throw a basketball did not impress my new P.E. teacher.
My one saving grace was my Algebra I class. For years, I had struggled in math; I remember many nights in 1st-8th grades arguing with my mother about the right way to do a problem and producing homework papers full of tear stains and erasure holes to my teacher each morning. But, unbeknownst to my new school, I had already had two years of Algebra in 7th and 8th grade. My transcript only showed it as a math class, and so, I was put in Algebra for the 3rd year in a row when I started high school.
By then, I knew all about this x and y stuff. Algebra was, by far, my easiest class that year, and the tears I cried in 9th grade were never over math.
At the end of the year, however, I realized I had made a huge mistake.
My Algebra teacher, Mrs. O’Brien, called me into her office. “I’m recommending you for Honors Geometry next year,” she told me. I was blind-sided. Honors Geometry was for gifted math students. I was not a gifted math student. Had never been, would never be. Where in the world did she get such a crazy idea? Then, I realized the problem.
“Oh, you think I’m good at math because I got good grades this year,” I said. I knew I had to confess. “I only did well because I’ve had Algebra before. I’m not good at math. Really. Especially anything to do with shapes. I would not do well in Honors Geometry, trust me.”
I felt a panic rising in me at this realization that this year of pretending to be what I was not was going to completely backfire on me.
Mrs. O’Brien looked at me. “You are good in math. And you will do well in Honors Geometry. Trust me.” And that was that. With a flick of her wrist, she signed off on the form that would doom me to a Sophomore year littered with math anxiety.
I spent the entire summer before 10th grade consumed in regret at my short-sightedness. I should have done worse in Algebra, pretended I was floundering, gone in for tutoring, kept myself from raising my hand so darn often. Now I would be in for it. But even then, even as I obsessed about this horrible year ahead, I felt a bit proud – it was nice to know that Mrs. O’Brien believed that I could be good in math.
Honors Geometry was taught by Ms. Michele. Ms. Michele was beautiful. Ms. Michele was smart. And Ms. Michele was no-nonsense. She was everything in a teacher that intimidated me.
Except she didn’t intimidate me. When she taught, she used a method that I had never seen before in math. Instead of just telling us what to do, she told us why to do it. For everything there was a logical reason, and when I didn’t understand the reason and timidly raised my hand, she patiently explained it.
In fact, it got to the point where I didn’t have to raise my hand anymore. Ms. Michele would scan the classroom, and pause on my face. “Theresa, I can tell you have a question,” she would say. (I was “Theresa” back then, not “Terri.”) And, instead of despairing at my consistent puzzlement, she would patiently back up and explain the concept a different way.
At the end of the year, I won the award for Honors Geometry. I went on to Honors Algebra II, and then Calculus. I will never pretend that I understood one thing I learned in Calculus, but I did fine, even so. For a girl who “just wasn’t any good at math,” I didn’t do too badly.
Back before there was such a buzz phrase as “Growth Mindset,” I had teachers who believed in me when I did not. They helped me work through mistakes and figure out how to correct them. I had similar experiences in Chemistry and Choir. Even in English, which had always been my strength, I had many moments of doubt and self-hatred. But kind teachers were always there to help me through.
So, during this week of Teacher Appreciation, I would like to thank those women and men at Archbishop Blenk High School who helped me to believe in myself. Ms. Michele and Mrs. O’Brien are two of them. Ms. Collins, Dr. Antoine, and Mrs. McGee also made a difference, along with many others who, I’m sorry to say, I cannot remember all of these years later. Thank you to all of you who devoted your time and effort to the education of the girls at Archbishop Blenk High School. I’m sure I expressed my gratitude when I graduated, but I want you to know that, even now, I am so thankful for the part you played in my life.