The Tales of a Math/Writing Person.

I remember some of the teachers of my childhood clearer than I remember most of the teen heartthrobs I had plastered to my wall.

Who am I kidding? I did not have any posters boys on my walls. I would have been too embarrassed. But I wanted to have posters of the son from that Wilford Brimley show (Our House?) and the singers of New Edition. And I can not tell you ANY of their names right now. But my 8th grade math teacher who made me love math? I know her name and when I saw her at my Aunt’s funeral last year I called her by that name and excitedly greeted her.

We talk about this a lot, the power of the good teachers in our lasting memories. 

But you know who else I haven’t forgotten? The ones with the not-so-great memories. I refuse to call any of them “bad teachers” because I have seen through my 3 kids that sometimes a teacher is great for 90% of the class, but not great for my kid. But, there are teachers from 16+ years of education that haunted my nightmares and distorted my perception of self and those teachers also linger in my memories and I’m trying to reflect on that as I help my kids navigate the periodic bad classroom experience. 

I think it’s important that we – as parents – try to interrupt any bad programming our students can get from a not-so-great classroom experience. I had an English teacher once who graded me poorly in my writing assignments and therefore would constantly kind of make jabs at me being a Math/Science person instead of an English/Writing person. This is actually the reason I started college as a Math Major because I didn’t really know what my other options were…being a Math/Science person and all.

But my freshman year in college I took my Composition 101 class and while I still lacked a lot of basic grammar skills (something I still struggle with) my professor did a great job in breaking down how to set up your writing and I really enjoyed it and he really praised me and I changed my major and when I went back and told this teacher in high school she LAUGHED. “You’re an English major now?”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot when I hear my daughter – who is struggling with Math this year – say she’s “not a Math person”. But here’s the thing, the teacher has a grading system where small tests with few problems have a LOT of weight and she doesn’t do partial credit and so my daughter can take a math test with 6 problems on it and miss three of them because she dropped a negative or made a dumb error saying 3×2 is 5 instead of 6 and BAM! She has a 50% on the test and that’s like 25% of her 9-week grade. But as the person who helps her with Math every week I can tell you: SHE IS GREAT AT MATH. Her teacher finally sent home all of the tests they’ve taken this year (I’m not the only parent struggling to understand my daughter’s grade) and I went through all of them and at least 80% of the missed problem were dumb mistakes. 

Now…that’s something my daughter needs to work on, obviously, but that means her C in Math does not mean she is “Not a Math Person”. She’s taking Algebra in 7th grade and the concepts – she understands GREAT. She just makes dumb mistakes lining up her problems and being legible etc. But she sees that “C” in a sea of “As” and just assumes she is not a math person but I keep countering that programming because I don’t want her carrying that around when she might love math if she had a grade that reflected her understanding.

So I’ve been trying to reset my brain with my kids and no matter what their grades are in any subject, I’m trying not to let them describe themselves in one category or another. And I’m trying to make sure I stop doing that about myself. I still sometimes call myself a Math/Science person because of the English/Writing teacher in high school and COME ON, KIM. You write daily! And you love it! YOU ARE ALSO A WRITING PERSON.

Also? I found another favorite poem. W. H. Auden “Stop All The Clocks”

‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone’


Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H. Auden

WOULD A MATH/SCIENCE PERSON STILL BE FINDING FAVORITE POEMS?

I just think we need to be aware that our kids (or even ourselves) can be long-term impacted by what a teacher or a class “says” about who we are as people. If we feel “good” or “bad” in something we can carry that with us long into our college and career choices and I worry about that is a path being mapped out by someone who only knows our kid for one year of their long lives. I mean, there are definitely people with stronger aptitudes for things but I avoided reading poetry forever because I am a Math/Science person and then I started hearing John Green read a “short poem” every week on his podcast and I stared realizing – AT AGE 40 – that maybe I’m a poetry person too?

So just be aware that this programming could be happening to our kids and we don’t want them to frame themselves in the light of one teacher from one year when that might direct their trajectory for the rest of their lives.

I like to think that deep down we are all Scientists and Poets. We are all Math/Science people – it’s just that maybe some of us are Algebra/Chemistry people and some of us are Geometry/Physics people because various maths and sciences require various mindsets and skillsets. I think we’re all writers – but maybe some of us could write poetry or short stories and others could write research papers or dissertations. I think we’re all poets, but some of us read it while some of us write it, and some of us like long epic poems and some of us like the ones with 3 stanzas. 

Don’t let your kids, or yourself, be pigeon-holed, is all I’m saying. One classroom experience should not dictate how anyone categorizes their interests or their passions for the rest of their lives.

5 Comments

  • Cheryl

    Amen. And it also comes from our families too. Not that they mean it to, but I’m still the “smart one” even though it has been proven time and time again that it is not true. And they mean well, but all of us are smart, just in different areas. My brother can take apart anything and put it back together again (even using all the pieces!) and I have been known to screw up changing a light bulb. He’s the “smart one” too.

    • Samantha

      Oh my goodness, yes. How many times do parents talk negatively about themselves – their own math abilities especially – in front of their children? The child makes a bad grade on a math test and it’s, “well, I was never any good at math either so you get it honest.” It’s “inherited” only in the sense that the parents speak it into being.

  • Ashley

    I have so many things I want to say.
    1. I’m so glad I subscribed to get your blogs by email. I was really missing them not coming automatically on Facebook. And this is even better because I don’t have to scroll through FB to get it.
    2. What kind of dumb math teacher doesn’t do partial credit?! That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. You wouldn’t give a kid a 50% on an English essay because they spelled a couple of words wrong. That teacher should be grading the concepts, with a little ding here and there for inaccurate math operations. I am so glad you are there to remind her that missing negatives does NOT make her not a math person. I’m sorry she’s having that experience. Hopefully she’ll get a more reasonable math teacher in the future who will be able to see past the minor imperfections. I don’t even like calling them “careless mistakes,” because usually the kid isn’t being careless at all. They just aren’t perfect. Same reason I have mistakes in my math answer keys or worksheets sometimes. Ugh.
    3. I am very curious who that English teacher was. You certainly showed them! I bet whoever it was (I have a couple of guesses, but I’m also blanking on who we had for a couple of years) writes a lot less than you do each day, and I feel certain that she reads fewer books than you do. Most humans do!

    I don’t know why I’m feeling so feisty today. I just want to wholeheartedly support you AND your family because you are all well-balanced, multi-talented individuals who don’t need to be labelled as anything other than amazing.

    Happy Monday, friend.

  • Kathy

    This is the second time in four days I’ve seen/heard this poem. Matthew recites it at Gareth’s funeral in Four Weddings and a Funeral. It always makes me cry. Such a good poem. And to slightly tweak a line from another literary person – We contain multitudes.