I am a writer.
A word girl.
A lover of language.
Since I can remember, math has not been my thing. In fact, at many times during my school years, it was really not my thing.
This was especially true one spring day in 1980.
In 1980 I was nine years old. It was the year my parents got divorced. My dad moved out, leaving blank walls where his favorite art pieces had been, blank stares from my friends when I told them my parents had separated and a blank canvas where we’d eventually rebuild our family.
My third grade teacher, Mrs. Weaver, was a wonderful woman…loving, accepting and a divorced mother who understood what my family was going through. Among other things, Mrs. Weaver was helping our class learn multiplication. (Remember, it was 1980, so we were learning the old school way: route memorization of facts.)
Amidst the chaos of my parents divorce, learning, grasping and memorizing multiplication facts was not going well for this word girl. I was never so happy as the day I found the multiplication table on the back flap of my Pee Chee folder.
But, Mrs. Weaver didn’t stress over my multiplication mishaps. So I wasn’t stressing, either, until Ms. Staub — a fifth grade teacher from down the hall — made my math skills an issue.
Mrs. Weaver excused our class to leave for recess. We were in a rush that only third graders can understand. We had to get outside. Now. Or we might just die.
As I reached the door to our classroom, Ms. Staub stood in the doorway.
“Miss Larson,” she said to me, “What’s 9 x 8?”
I stared at her. Couldn’t she have picked something from the 2s?
Her frame blocked the doorway. Her hands were on her hips. She wasn’t moving until I gave her an answer.
She shook her head. (She may have sneered, but that could just be my interpretation.)
I started moving my fingers against my jeans as if I were playing the piano…1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9…
“Are you using your fingers?”
“No,” I lied.
Kids were lining up behind me, anxious to get outside. It felt like the entire class was pushing against my back. A tsunami ready to wash over me at any minute.
“81? 77? 70?” I started to whisper random numbers. Over and over she shook her head.
Somehow, I landed on the right one.
“Yes. You may go outside…”
I won’t go into how, from a teaching standpoint, this scenario is so very wrong. I’m grateful to this day that my mother called the school to report the incident. That was my first lesson in speaking up when you’ve been treated unfairly.
So yesterday…33 years later…while I was volunteering at the elementary school and my son’s teacher asked me to help a few kids with their math, I thought: Oh, crap.
Me, help with math? I started to breathe again when she told me I’d have an answer key.
Next post I’ll share what this writer, this word girl and this lover of words learned about herself while helping some 9-year-old boys with their math.