Today I gave a talk and led a writing exercise about education with a group of middle-schoolers participating in a summer program called Nosotras En Control -- middle school Latinos from Livermore, Dublin, and Pleasanton. They were a great group, curious, participatory, sullen, and earnest; one even asked me if I ever did drugs. I talked about times when I struggled in school which surprises young people because they often think that teachers were always smart and self-assured.
While preparing for this event, I spoke with my friend Karin Spirn, author of /http://smythologies.blogspot.com/ my colleague, and office mate, and she urged me to write a story for the occasion about how my middle-school math teacher ignored me once I got behind in her class. I always loved how much Karin felt for me the couple of times she heard me tell that story, how outraged she was that a teacher could ignore a student, and how if my teacher had been more attentive I wouldn't have to be embarrassed about how terrible I still am at math, but I didn't think it was a real story. It turns out I was wrong. And while I don't normally like sharing stories that aren't polished or at least revised a few times, it feels right this time. It's still in progress and still untitled, but you can let me know what you think anyway.
The sixth, seventh, and eight grade teachers were noticeably meaner: Mr. Roundell, Ms. Martz, and Mrs. Casserly. The only nice teacher taught biology – Mr. Androlli. He had a comb over that flopped off his head and floated about whenever he got excited about cells dividing and mitochondria. Mr. Androlli drew animal cells, plant cells, paramecium, and bacteria, breaking his chalk, highlighting, and shading, and, dotting his masterpieces. At times he got too excited and went too fast, and I got lost. Othertimes, I got distracted by his hair. It had so many parts – one on the side just above the ear from where he combed the hair over his bald spot on the top and another in the back right in the middle. He combed this piece up to meet the hair he combed from the side and attempt to cover up what we all knew: Mr. Androlli was balding. He did make biology fun and I passed with a C.
Summerville Elementary School was a K-8 school, but the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade classes worked liked middle school. Students went to different classrooms for different subjects.
Mr. Roundell only taught seventh and eight grade social studies and PE. Mrs. Casserly taught sixth grade math and social studies, and Mrs. Martz taught English. Everyone got to know Mr. Roundell right away because he was a yard duty teacher, tall, and strict, and really mean to certain students. And he could be mean with a smile on his face. One recess during sixth grade I had to explain to him how Missy had gotten hurt running on the blacktop. I had seen the whole thing, and I was pretty sure that one of the seventh grade boys, one of Mr. Roundell's students, had tripped her. She was chubby and she would burst into tears anytime she got hurt, her feelings or anything else. This time she was really hurt; her knees were scraped and bloody and her elbow too, and she had to be taken to the office. She wasn't my friend really even though we had lived around the corner from each other since first grade and even though we sometimes walked together to school. She lived with her grandparents and no one ever asked where her mom was because we knew that would make her cry too, but Missy was always really nice to me, and I wanted Mr. Roundell to know what really happened.
“Are you sure she didn't just fall?” he asked looking down at me, his head shielding my eyes from the sun. “Missy falls a lot,” he continued.
“No, I'm pretty sure she didn't,” I said, pointing at the boys who Mr. Roundell had stopped but didn't bother talking to. “She was running from the ball wall, and they were watching her, and he,” I said, waving my arms and pointing again, “moved right in front of her and sort of put his foot out.”
“You sure do move your arms a lot when you talk,” Mr. Roudell said, interrupting. “What are you Italian?” he said laughing as he said it.
At first I didn't know what to say, but I could feel my face flush red.
“No, I'm not Italian; I'm Mexican,” I said, regretting those words as soon as they came out of my mouth.
“Oh, yeah Mexican,” he said, smiling before he turned away to scan the yard once again.
I stood speechless on the black top for several seconds unsure of what to do next or of what had just happened.
Mr. Roundell managed to humiliate me a couple of more times before I graduated from Summerville Elementary, but it was what happened, or didn't happen in Mrs. Casserly's math class that held me back the most.
Middle-school math was hard. By the end of September I was totally lost. Elementary school level math had been fun. Mrs. Bowser had taught math using blocks, and puzzles, and boards with nails and rubber bands. Mrs. Bowser had a loft in her classroom, and we were allowed to take the puzzles and boards with nails, or books, to the loft where it was comfortable.
Early in sixth grade alone at my desk with a pencil and paper, being slow at multiplication facts was discouraging, but I at least understood the concept of multiplication. I couldn't keep up at all when we got to multiplying and dividing fractions and decimals. I could almost feel my brain shutting down. I tried paying very close attention to everything that she wrote on the board, and raising my hand and asking questions though probably not enough. I tried calling Mrs. Casserly for help when the others were working problems, and she'd answer my questions in a whisper, as quickly as she could, in a rush to get back to the board to see who had come up with the right answer. Mrs. Casserly, who wore skirts to cover her wide hips, except on Fridays when she wore jeans, was always in a rush, always trying to fit her long lesson into the little time she had, but she was never in too much of a hurry to tell us a cute story about Mr. Casserly and how their initials were AC/DC, electricity, not the rock band. AC for Anna Casserly and DC for David Casserly. She must have been a newlywed even though she didn't look like one to me because she talked about her husband a lot.
Once she noticed that I was getting behind, Mrs. Casserly tried checking in with me when she could, but eventually she stopped checking on me at all. I would sometimes summon the courage to ask a question because I knew that's what I was supposed to do, and because I wondered if she noticed I was there at all, but usually I just faced the board while she lectured and pretended that I was following along, and usually I didn't raise my hand, and Mrs. Casserly didn't bother calling on me either.
My first year in high school, I flunked pre- algebra. After the first test on which I was able to work a couple of problems, I'd simply put my name on the the upper right-hand corner, Michelle Gonzales, turn it over to the blank side, doodle a bit, so the teacher thought I was writing, then I'd put my head down on the desk and take a nap. If I did my homework, I did it wrong. My step dad tried helping me, but he got so frustrated that I stopped asking him. And my teacher stopped helping me too.
But I still loved to read and write, and I loved playing music. Even though I had failed pre-algebra, and had to take consumer math instead, I was still good at other things like understanding Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet so well that Mr. De Genero let me read the part of Juliet. I was good at playing the flute, and not getting nervous during performances, and staying up to date on current events that most people didn't know about like how the United States gave money and guns to governments that hurt their people for speaking out against them in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and, yes, Mr. Roundell, I was good at moving my hands when I talked too.