“I Don’t Get It:” What I Learned From My Middle School Math Teacher

2003. Middle school. Frosted lip gloss and Cleopatra bangs.

I remember this day in particular because it was the first time I felt wholly and genuinely stupid.

I’ve never been stellar at math. It doesn’t leave room to ask “why?” which is a problem since this is my favourite question. It burns holes, and I can’t seem to ignore the smoke.

Mathematics don’t offer any grey areas, no half-truths, no “sometimes y.” It was a taxing gig, spinning my brain to sponge in order to absorb the steady stream of numbers. For years it had come like honey from a jar; slowly and sweetly, as things have a way of coming when our spirits are being nurtured. I struggled with scribbled equations, but this was the first time they had ever held me back.

“CAN YOU ADD, MISS KRAUSE?!’

In this moment I am pretty sure that even my toenails are sweating, and thinking about this isn’t helping the situation. He is wearing a sharp, straight line where a smile should be.

I didn’t do my homework, and the reason was equal parts “don’t get it.” and “don’t wanna.” As you can probably guess, neither of these are considered an acceptable response when called upon. The two of us are standing in front of the whiteboard, and the eyes are like pins in my back. He wants a definitive answer. I am terrified. Somewhere in the stormy silence, I pull a 2.

“THERE IT IS, MISS KRAUSE!”

I am so relieved that I could pee. The thing is, I don’t hate the guy. Later he tells me that I am smart and that it won’t be hard forever. He reminds me that ensuring my homework is done means ensuring that things like this won’t happen. “Have a great day, Miss Krause. See you tomorrow.” He’s my favourite teacher again.

I adapted to his intense environment, and I could do this because he grinned twice as much as he snarled, he told pretty good jokes, and, let’s face it: I wasn’t the only moron in the room. The humiliation was distributed pretty evenly.

June came, and brought with it moving boxes and report cards. I got a 46% and a note that said “Miss Krause is very polite and makes a great effort.”

I don’t know what became of him, and for a long time I didn’t see this experience for the transformative encounter that it was. I’m not saying that I lose sleep over this, but it absolutely had a hand in shaping my mindset.

It had never really occurred to me that this kind of behaviour was manipulative and inappropriate, because I was under the impression that it was a consequence I had created. It didn’t register as psychological abuse since it was only really directed toward the morons. I didn’t realize that we weren’t the morons in the equation.

I don’t remember how to cross multiply and I don’t know shit about fuck when it comes to geometry, but my time there was not wasted. Some of these lessons came much, much later, but he taught me a useful thing or two that stuck.

For one, I recognize that life is far too fleeting to spend it under the thumb of people who allow us to believe that we are stupid. Though there are multiple intelligences (8, count ’em, 8!) some of us still believe in a single route to success. We spend our lives placing ourselves into tiny boxes with pretty bows in order to distract the people we wish to impress from our blisteringly true, raw nature.

For another, as I’ve mentioned before, there is nothing wrong with being wrong. What I understand today is that it’s the lengths that we go to in order to appear as if we’ve always got it right that are the most destructive. We lie and we cheat and we hurt and we run from the life we want, all because we’ve got this idea that we shouldn’t want it. One minute we’re supposed to be striving for more, and the next we’re told to expect less.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I know that the things we love doing are not hobbies; the term is far too simple. They are an escape from the pointed fingers of expectation. They are an expression of all that is felt, spoken and silent. They are the bright side and they are the bandage covering the wound. If you ask me, there’s no glory in giving up the good for someone else’s “should.”

I’m not saying that we should run from struggle; it’s inevitable. I just think that if we’re going to bite back, we should be fuelled by the force of what it is that we long for; for whatever it is that we love.

P.S. Mr. Math was always up in my grill about showing my work. I like to think I came through.

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