I have never been good at math. What comes easily to brainy mathematicians is about as easy to me as sawing off my own arm with a butter knife. Not easy and certainly not without pain or tears.
Which is why, when I was answering the cursory, “What did you do this weekend?” question at work a few Mondays ago, I found myself smiling at the irony in my answer.
“What did I do this weekend? Well, I went apartment shopping, started reading a book on the rise and fall of the Russian aristocracy, and went to a concert with my high school math teacher and her husband.”
I don’t need to tell you how strange it is that a less than average math student somehow became friends with her math teacher.
(I also don’t need to tell you that my coworkers have expressed mild concern about my social life.)
The first time I realized Mrs. Finch would be my math teacher, I was terrified. I had heard about how difficult her classes were, so you can imagine my panic. I didn’t need a tough teacher for math to be challenging. Saying the word “math” without trembling was challenging enough.
But during my time in her classroom, I learned that Mrs. Finch was as compassionate as she was tough. Over time, I came to respect her not just because of what I had heard about her, but because of who I knew her to be: a patient, kind, and fair instructor. I valued the time she spent helping me comprehend difficult concepts, and appreciated the way she sympathized with my difficulty to learn something that came so naturally to her.
She has been a great teacher all of her career, I’m sure, but I remember the exact moment I knew it for myself.
It was trigonometry, and I was miserable. I was the lone junior in a class full of extraordinarily smart sophomores. They were breezing down the trig path, while I was trudging slowly behind.
In one of the units, there was a string of vocabulary words that we had to learn, and I lived for weekly quizzes on the terms. Memorize the definitions? That I could do. Apply them on a test? Well, that’s where the problem came in.
One day, near the end of class, Mrs. Finch perched on her stool, folded her hands together, and put on her, “We need to talk about a new assignment” face. She went on to explain that she was giving us an assignment using all the vocabulary words we had learned during that unit.
She wanted us to use the words to write a short story.
I looked around the room at the brainy sophomores and knew with certainty that this assignment was for me. She knew my strengths. She knew that English was my best subject and that creative writing was where I excelled. She knew. And she created an assignment that would capitalize on my gifts and give me one small victory in a class in which I knew consistent defeat.
While the rest of the class groaned about an assignment they felt was unnecessary, I nearly burst into tears of gratitude.
That’s when I knew she was a great teacher. And that’s when I knew we would be friends.
I don’t remember anything about trigonometry.
(I actually couldn’t even remember how to spell it without looking it up on the Google.)
If I were in a life or death situation and asked to solve a complicated math equation, I’d just shrug my shoulders and say, “Go ahead and kill me now. I’ve got nothing.” I don’t remember any theories, Pythagorean or otherwise. But I do remember that moment. I do remember the feeling of pride when I finally handed Mrs. Finch a completed assignment that I was confident in. I do remember how grateful I was (how grateful I am still) that my gifts and talents were being valued and cultivated by a teacher in an entirely different subject matter.
Though I did not choose to teach, had I entered that field, there are several teachers from my career as a student that I would’ve wanted to emulate.
Mrs. Finch, my friend, you are one of them. Thanks for seeing me, for valuing me, and for contributing to the woman I am today.