Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

12/13/2004

I like most of my students.

File under: Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 5:20 pm.

A few months ago, I prefaced a post with “One of these days, I should really post about how much I like most of my students.” And then I promptly forgot about that, because the students who were using up most of my energy were, by and large, the complement of the set of students I liked. But the term’s over, and all of the exams (less two from students writing late) have been graded, and I’m remembering how much I like most of my students.

I like the middle-aged woman who sat by the door in the front row. “I spend two hours on math every single day,” she said, “I dropped all of my courses so that I could focus on this one.” Unlike some of my students who made similar claims, this woman was sincere and wasn’t bitter in the least. She found the material I taught interesting, and she wanted to learn it - even though she lacked a natural ability to understand it. Every class she’d have a page of questions about the previous day’s material, and I’d see her flipping back and forth in her notes, cross-referencing the formulas and the procedures. Sometimes she’d be slow to understand my explanations, but she’d always cut herself off before taking up too much of the class time. “I’ll see you during your office hours,” she’d say, and thank me for the privilege.

I like the kid who sat in the centre of the front row of my discrete math class, hanging onto my every word when I would remark that this result or that one was a surprising or counterintuitive. During the tests, he was the one I’d keep my eye on. I could tell when he figured out the questions, because his face always broke into a huge grin at those moments. “I liked the question about the committee selection,” he told me after one test, and I believed him.

I like the two girls I overheard one morning at the end of the finance unit. “I’m going to start saving for my retirement now,” said one of them.

I like the precalculus student who did well in high school math, came to my class, and got a C on his first test. I didn’t get to know this student until later, when he told me that he was unaccustomed to writing tests whose questions differed even slightly from the homework - so he went back to a favourite high school teacher and asked her for help. He then worked and worked throughout the term, and interpreted his low marks as indications that he was not understanding the material deeply enough. He became frustrated at his inability to set up equations for word problems, so he did problem after problem until he figured it out. A day before the exam he visited me during office hours and told me that he had studied every single test and homework problem in detail, because he so often “lost it” on tests - and was determined not to let that happen this time. His exam paper was filled with writing, wrong solutions scratched out and replaced with correct ones. The exam was a map of his thought process, and I delighted in following the steps. His exam grade: an A. When I computed it, I cheered at an empty room.

I like the girl who came to my office six weeks into the term, having failed her first test and some of her quizzes. “I haven’t been keeping up with the homework,” she said, “and it’s my own fault. If I fail, I fail, and I’ll have no one to blame but myself, but I’m not giving up. I have some questions for you, if it’s okay.” It was. For the remainder of the term she worked, and passed the exam - and the course - comfortably.

I like the woman who failed every single one of my tests, as well as the exam, and kept working anyway - alone, with a tutor, and with me. It killed me to see her do so poorly, and it killed me to not be able to help her. After her third failure, she told me that she knew that she wouldn’t be able to pass the course, but damned if she wasn’t going to learn as much as she could.

I like the accounting student who worked part-time as a bookkeeper, and occasionally missed my class as a result. “I’m leaving early today,” she would tell me at the beginning of some classes, “and it’s nothing personal.” A day before the final she saw me during my crowded office hours, and wouldn’t let me answer her questions until I’d answered everyone else’s. “They probably have better excuses than I do for not understanding the material,” she explained, “Me, if I’d been to class I’d probably be okay.” She was anyway; she got one of the highest marks in the class.

I like the identical twin brothers who sat quietly and intently near the window, and I feel guilty for not being able to tell them apart out of context. For awhile the one whose name started with B was the one with the bushy hair, but then he got a haircut, and then he became the one who sat at the back, but that only worked in the classroom. I liked how they sat far enough apart that they couldn’t possibly see one another’s test papers during exams - and yet, they always submitted near-identical solutions in near-identical handwriting, down to syntax.

I like the young mother who really, really enjoyed math. “I was reading about the Fibonacci sequence,” she told me after class one day, “Do you know anything about it?”

I like the girl who earnestly thanked me for “everything” upon handing in the exam.

I like the guy who told me that he’d never done well in math until my class - the very opposite of many of my students’ experiences. “I got a thirty in grade 12,” he said, “But I’m spending hours and hours in the tutorial centre, and I’m getting it - for basically the first time ever.” He got a B.

I like the student who dropped out of my class halfway through the term due to illness. She was sick for the first test, and the only time I could reschedule was during my office hours, when she’d have to write alongside students asking for help. At one point I tripped over the phone cord, sending the telephone crashing onto the floor. “Geez, I’m so sorry for the distractions,” I said. She looked at me quizzically: “I have two small children,” she said. “This is nothing. Distractions are when they pull the test paper away from you.”

Yeah, I like most of my students.