The Teacher Who Changed My Life

            Academics did not come easy for me. The alphabet made no sense, so I couldn’t read or write. While math was easy, time and money stumped me. No one had ever read to me and there were few books in our house, so that was probably the main reason that everything was so hard.

            I did attend preschool for a while. I recall that the teachers were nice, but they only gave me assignments that involved coloring alone, at my desk. Kindergarten wasn’t much better.

            The one skill that I did master was being invisible. I was the student who disappeared into her desk. When my reading group was called to the front of the room, I scooted down so far that only my forehead was above the desk. If the teacher had been paying attention, she would have noticed that I was missing, but she seldom did.

            My returned papers had poor grades. When I realized how poorly I was doing, I decided to teach myself. My determination was what helped me succeed.

            I still struggled, so much so that at the end of each year, when the teacher called me to her desk and marked on my report card whether or not I had passed, I never knew what would happen. It could easily have gone either way. Repeating a grade might have been the best thing for me except for the punishment I’d have gotten at home.

            Along the way my academic skills improved, enough so that by the time I went to high school I was able to enroll in the more challenging courses. I was on was on the college-bound track. Even so, English was still difficult.

            My ninth grade English teacher seldom called on me, which was good, because most of the time I had no idea what he was talking about. He’d ask about theme, moral of the story and characterization. What I thought was the theme, was never what he thought. My interpretation of moral was always wrong. I confused characters and so didn’t “get” what one character intended or meant or said.

            There was one time when the teacher called on me to answer a question. I had thought I knew the answer, but I froze. Instead of saying what was on my mind, I replied, “I don’t know.” Not only did he laugh at me, but so did all of my classmates.

            When we moved to California, I had a chance to start over with new classmates, in a new school where none of the teachers knew my history. My Algebra teacher was Mr. Kjekegard, a short, squat, ruddy-faced, pleasant man. He was incredibly patient and explained things in a way that not only made sense, but allowed me to excel.

            Mr. K saw something in me that no previous teacher had seen: a person capable of becoming whatever she wanted to be. When the class was working independently, he often stopped by my desk to give words of encouragement. Sometimes when class ended, he called me to his desk and commented about how well I was doing.

            His demeanor and support encouraged me to work harder, to master complex problems and to push ahead of the class. When he asked for students to come to the board to solve problems, I frequently volunteered, something I had never done before.

            He didn’t teach Geometry, so I had a new teacher, one who was not patient or kind. I found Geometry complex and confusing. It didn’t follow any mathematical principles that made sense to me. No matter how hard I worked, I struggled. The teacher offered no help or encouragement.

            My senior year I was assigned to Mr. K’s class for Trigonometry. I rejoiced when I saw his name on my course schedule. Once again I was a stellar student, mastering complex problems with ease.

            The best part was that Mr. K encouraged me to think about college, something that I wanted to do, but felt I’d never have sufficient academic skills to even consider the possibility. I applied as a Math major, of all things! And, surprise of all surprises, I was accepted at every college.

            While I eventually changed my major because of a misogynistic Math Department Chair, I was always grateful for the confidence that Mr. K had given me. Under his tutelage I discovered that not only could I succeed in higher lever math, but that I could also excel in almost all academic areas.

            Mr. K changed my life. The child who was once invisible later became the teacher who stood at the front of the room, the teacher who made sure to recognize the good in all of her students.  

Bashfulness Explained

I was a socially awkward child. There was a reason for it.

When you’ve been scolded for speaking in the presence of visitors, when you’ve been made fun of and teased mercilessly, you learn that no one cares what you feel about a given subject. When you are never asked which flavor of ice cream you prefer or what cereal you’d like, you realize that your preferences have no import within the family.

I was the invisible child. I appeared when it was demanded, but only in body. My mouth only opened when I was forced into speaking. It was a rough way to grow up.

By the time I was five, being invisible had become my salvation. It kept me safe from punishment for saying or doing the wrong thing. It also made me miserable. I was an unhappy child whose self-esteem was nonexistent.

For some reason that I’ll never understand, my parents decided to enroll me in Kindergarten. At that time K was not required, and so it cost money, of which my parents had very little.

It quickly became apparent that I was academically behind my peers. I could not name all of the colors, did not know shapes, knew no letters of the alphabet and could not write numbers. While this lack of knowledge placed me far beyond my classmates, and I recognized my ignorance even at that young age, it also placed me at a disadvantage whenever it became time to work with others, either on schoolwork or on the playground.

My teacher thought that I was just shy and that I’d overcome it. She was wrong.

Day after day I sat silent in my assigned chair. I did not speak when the teacher asked me a question. If cornered, I could manage a whisper, but only a word or two. Just enough to respond.

On the playground I was a loner. I loved to swing, but I refused to stand in line to have a turn. Instead I played in the sand, by myself, day after day. Even after a storm when the sand was damp, that’s where I’d be.

When Kindergarten ended, I knew a lot of things. I had learned colors, shapes, numbers and letters. I could hold a pencil correctly and write my name, the alphabet and numbers. I could draw shapes and color within the lines. But I could not speak and I had no friends.

It was a terrible way to begin one’s academic career.

As I grew older, I understood what was required to get the grades my parents expected, so I did all the things that my teachers demanded. I still sat silent, however, even when called upon to respond. No matter how hard I tried, I could not muster the strength to squeak. It was embarrassing.

Things improved somewhat in junior high. By then I had developed a voice, but it was a quiet one. I still had no friends. I could not approach someone and initiate conversations and had a hard time participating even when I had something to offer.

In high school I made one friend. She was a loner like me. Somehow we found each other. Together we could speak. It was an awesome feeling.

I don’t remember her name, but I do remember the hours we spent walking her neighborhood talking about all kinds of things.

For me, it was a revelation. Someone cared what I thought and really wanted to know and understand my opinions!

Can you understand how liberating that was?

By the time I enrolled in college I had overcome much of the paralyzing fear I had of speaking out in class. I could raise my hand and answer in front of others, as long as the class was small. I could voice an opinion. I could find others like me.

I’d like to report that I am no longer shy, but that is not true.

I am comfortable with those who know me, but uncomfortable in groups of people who do not. This makes it challenging when I go to conferences and workshops. I am with ten to fifteen total strangers who are going to critique my writing and I am expected to critique theirs. It’s painfully hard.

In a crowd of “family” which includes people who I either don’t know or barely know, I find a corner in which to plop down and hide there.

People who have known me for a long time don’t believe that I am shy. Around them I am confident that they truly want to know what I think, and so I can relax and be me. I love being with those friends as they recognize that I am a person of worth.

If only I had felt this growing up. Imagine how different I might have turned out!