December 26, 2014
Some time ago I wrote about one of my students, and about a moment of glory that “Joe”—who does not do math—had in the classroom. There ended up being a bittersweet conclusion to the story this past week. Bitter, in that the reason it was the “conclusion” is that he is no longer one of my students; but sweet, in that it gave me [us?] hope.
After what I last wrote, he had more of a positive attitude in the class, but remained a problem student. His ability to entertain other students was far more consistent than any timely assignment completion could ever be. As a result, his grades remained very poor: hovering around the 50% mark.
Towards the end of the semester, I assigned our project. I decided on a “Math & Sports” theme, with the goal that it could offer those who struggled with the numbers themselves a chance to tap into another interest. And with a 20% weighting, this project could potentially be quite a nice boost . . . or downfall. As it turned out, quite a few ignored warnings about plagiarism and turned in clearly copy-and-pasted papers to me. After grading them, I gave a class lecture about how I would be returning some of their projects to them for a re-do . . . “If I hand you back your paper later today, you will know why,” was my stern benediction as the end-of-class bell rang.
Lunchtime was spent walking around with a stack of offending papers while I found each student and had a conversation with him or her about what I had seen in the paper, and about how it needed to be fixed. While I did so, I saw Joe. I stopped to tell him how proud I was of the good work he had done on his. He had obviously put his heart for soccer [i.e.football] into the project, and the work had paid off. “You did really well,” I told him. “You’ll see tomorrow,” I added with a hinting smile. He had made a B+.
Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Joe’s family would be moving to another country—already—at the end of this semester. Around this same time, I’d begun talking to his new math tutor. We agreed that he seemed capable—just easily distracted by prospects of P.E. class and soccer practice, and unwilling to spend the time needed to get past the mental block. He also had trouble remembering where he had put papers, so even if he did his homework it had trouble making it back to me.
Encouraged by the boost of his last project, however, I began touching base with his tutor about the work he had done and noticed a rise in his grades. One day I went in to talk to him about his imminent departure. Realizing that he might be able to get up to a passing grade, I asked him to study hard for the last test. “You are in a one-on-one match right now,” I began. “You are one team, and Math is the other. You’ve been practicing for some time now and are about to have the tournament. This is it. You can win . . . you can beat Math!”
He did it. He worked hard, and he got a B on that test. As I calculated the final grades, my spirit sunk a bit. I saw his grade still failing, and I saw that I had never gotten one of the last homework assignments turned in by him. By this point, he had gone already, leaving a few days before school actually ended for the break. I did some hunting, in case he had done the work and I could track it down somehow, but had no luck. It was so close! I thought. His tutor encouraged me, saying that regardless of the grading outcome, he would benefit from the work put into the class. I agreed. Yes, it’s not the grade that matters. I know it’s the effort—I tell students the same thing all the time: why do I forget this truth myself?
The day before the break I got my grade verification sheets and began to double check with my grade book. I saw a mistake and then realized, with a smile spreading across my face, that the only mistake was in my own mind. Turns out, I had a different idea of the grade scale in my head when I looked at the numbers last: I thought the dividing line between D and F was higher than it actually is for my school’s secondary grading scale. So, in fact, Joe’s grade had risen enough at the end that he did have a D . . . a solid D, no less :-)
*I got to enjoy the company of family this Christmas . . . something that has not happened for several years now. Christmas morning, as we slowly woke up, I wandered around the house with my niece for a bit. She introduced me to the horses, pointed out a pomegranate tree, plucked a sprig of rosemary for me, chatting in a calmingly nonchalant manner about random things as we went. We paused in a patch of sunlight and we both quiet for a bit. I closed my eyes and faced the sunshine as she grabbed a twig and began to sketch in the dirt. After few minutes she had produced a fine rendering of a rainbow arcing over both a shining sun and a grazing horse. I looked at her work and smiled at the realization that here, in this random vacationing moment, life was happening. Life. No matter that I have no scale with which to measure the meaning of this moment: it matters. So it goes. A measured math score matters. A random sketch in the dirt just as much. And it is good.