picture compliments of morguefile.com
I am teaching grade 4-6 math this year. When I was asked, I agonized and stalled, then worried that I’d made the wrong decision. I didn’t want it to take too much away from my already limited writing time.
Math and I have an odd relationship. As a kid, I was quick out of the gate to “get,” that thing called math. Learning math was a physical rush. Numbers felt comfortable and friendly in my head. Patterns peeked smiling from all kinds of places.
Life happened and I began to see and believe that “real” math people innately understood things I didn’t. There was an “it” they had that I lacked. I still loved patterns and numbers but our friendship was private.
Grade seven math was the first class I was ever given to teach. The head of the math department was a legendary calculus teacher. That year it was my nervous lot to teach his son. Several times the legend found me. Each time I expected to be discovered for my lack of realness. “You’re a born math teacher,” he would say. I told him of the myriad English courses, but not a single university level math course to my credit. “You’re a born math teacher,” he replied unphased.
That summer I signed up for a university Calculus course hoping to convince myself that he was right about me being a born math teacher. The first class was only housekeeping, but I could feel the thrill of math in the air. I sat down that night eager to read the textbook, but none of it seemed real. Just little exercises for the sake of exercising. Was there even a point? For a pop quiz the next day someone began pouring blue water into a bottle. “Write the function of the blue water going into the bottle,” said the monotone grad student conducting the class.
This moment came with a great deal of clarity. I didn’t care even the tiniest bit what the function of the blue water was. I left and found a course whose functions interested me considerably more (a women’s studies course, if you’re curious).
Meanwhile, anytime I was asked to teach a math class I said yes. The irony was always that, as much as I love teaching English (and I really did love it), I was always a better math teacher. I privately debated the possible existence of a born math teacher with no knowledge of higher math. A 2003 book, “The Myth of Ability” by John Mighton, said it was more than possible, so I made it my bible and never looked back.
Math is about magic. Teaching math is about inspiring magicians. Unexpectedly back at a chalkboard, I’m not sure how all the balancing will work. I’m 80% through my novel’s umpteenth rewrite. I have the blog and have other writing things on the go. But fifteen minutes into the first math class I knew that sometimes magic trumps time. People in love don’t worry about the time spent together that could have been used for other things. Teaching math is like that for me.
My concession to reality is to keep County Road 21 postings to twice a week. The number of typos and grammatical errors may trend upwards.The times I can’t manage a post may increase. But in the long run I believe that my writing and teaching math will make fine friends.
So here’s to the magic!
photo thanks to Smadar at morguefile.com
When I stopped teaching, it felt like I was dying. The sight of math books, grammar DVD’s, or anything school related undid me. The label that told me who I was (teacher) wasn’t going to exist anymore. I would picture my sons, looking up at me as I led an assembly, and burst into tears. How could I quit before I ever got to teach one of them? How could I take away something they were proud of?
The months that followed were an excruciating relief. Relief because I badly needed rest. Excruciating because on the way to getting it, I realized things. My kids didn’t really care that I quit teaching. Turns out their pride in my accomplishments was a happy smile in a day, not a sustaining factor in their lives. They liked my improved availability.
Although I had put in hundreds of hours to non-teaching related helps to the school, nothing fell apart when I left. My students had enjoyed my classes, but no one’s education came to a grinding halt. That something I was an integral part of could be okay without me was “totally new information.”
I knew that I had been slowly bleeding to death trying to do it all. I didn’t know that with the best of intentions, I was choosing to die. Or that no one had really asked me to. I thought I was special to the people at the blood bank. I never realized that they accepted what I had to give because I was standing in the line to give it. That they weren’t even marking gold stars by my name for donor of the month. When I left, the blood supply did not even hiccup. Life went on.
A friend teaches kindergarten. If a someone’s mother has a baby, if chicks hatch, or something important happens, they make a poster. They always put “BIG NEWS,” at the top, and then tell you whatever it is. As I rested my body and spirit (something in my case that should have been done years earlier) this was all very big news to me. At first it made me feel small and depressed. With no official employment, not only did I no longer matter, but I had never mattered. (This is what it felt like.) The thing that I felt as vocation and claimed as identity, teaching and school involvement, was gone. I was left facing the fact that I had not been as important to the picture as I thought I was.
An invaluable gift came wrapped in these painful discoveries. I found permission to rest and permission to wait. I wanted to write, but I was hesitant to go rushing off to join the hubbub of facebook likes and incessant small talk. I intentionally stayed back from the maddening crowds and focused on what I could learn in quiet, without promotions, recommendations, or commendations. (I would have been okay with some of that but since it wasn’t available I learned to make do. )
I didn’t quit teaching five years ago to be noble. I quit because I couldn’t function anymore. Some days I miss it. More days, I’m glad. All the grief I felt then at walking away from something has grown into the firm conviction that I was only ever walking towards something. Perhaps this is one of life’s secrets, that a little honest effort will suffice to keep the boat on course. We journey on a wide and forgiving river nudged gently along toward the good, when we know it and when we don’t.