05 October 2011

The Misunderestimated Math Teacher

Note: The title of this blog post alludes to a quote from former President George W. Bush, who said of the critics who doubted his chance to win the 2000 election, "They misunderestimated me."

My seventh grade math teacher was a friendly, sweet woman but many of my classmates thought her a ditz.  Maybe it was the fact she was fairly young and had blonde hair.  Maybe it was the fact she openly counted on her fingers and often made the "quizzical dog" face.  I didn't mind any of this, of course.  I found those little quirks endearing.  I liked her.  I liked most of my teachers over the years, honestly.  I found they generally appreciated sincere questions and had a sense of humor if you were mature enough to engage it (as I often was).  I never really had much of a rapport with this specific teacher, though.  She assigned our seats and I wasn't really placed near her.  Being a math class, I rarely offered to answer questions and just sort of sat quietly, did as I was instructed and left.

The seating arrangement became a source of conflict for me, however.  One configuration placed me next to an obnoxious bully.  By today's standards I suppose he was tolerable, but he was an antagonistic little snot and I couldn't stand him.  To give you an idea what I was up against, this was a kid who, in the seventh grade, was allowed by his parents to get his hair cut and styled into the Playboy Bunny logo.  Naturally, this wasn't the kind of kid whose parents were likely to admonish him for taunting me at every turn.

I sucked it up for a while, but one day I was just tired of it.  I didn't confront him about it.  First of all, he was much bigger than me, and while I never understood it, he was fairly popular (or, at least, the popular kids indulged him so long as someone else was his prey).  More importantly, I knew he was the kind of person who wouldn't understand a confrontation.  Rather than allow things between us to reach a point of stability, he would escalate his needling of me.  There are some people who insist on stirring things up, then becoming indignant and play the victim when they're called out on it.  They pursue escalation rather than equilibrium.  He was such a person.

Instead, I approached my teacher after class.  Quietly, before any incoming students had the opportunity to enter the room and overhear my plea, I calmly asked if she would move me to another seat.  I explained that I just couldn't stand this classmate of mine.

Her response took me by surprise.  She knew he was an abrasive, tormenting snot; that was exactly why she had seated me beside him.  "You're the one student I thought could handle him," she said.

It had never crossed my mind that she had put that much thought into the seating chart, or that she had so high an opinion of me.  Half of the others in the room would have simply egged him on to being more of a jackass and few of the others, she thought, could contain him as discreetly as I had.

It wasn't the first time someone had said something positive to me about myself, but it was the first time that I can recall someone saying something positive to me about myself that had meaning.  It made me reconsider who I was.  I had simply assumed I wasn't on her radar at all, that my being next to this classmate had been arbitrary on her part and possibly some act of cruel fate.  My suffering hadn't gone unnoticed; it had been planned!

I don't know if you've ever been a sacrificial lamb, but I can tell you it's an odd experience when you become aware of it.  There's a part of you that becomes angry that you were a pawn not meant to survive, but so too is there a part of you that takes a measure of pride in having been selected.  Because I liked this teacher, the pride reaction won out over indignation.  I understood then that she was far savvier than she had let on, and I saw her in a different light after that conversation.

She quickly did revise the seating chart.  I can't say for certain, but I think I finished out that school week beside the bully, and when we returned the following Monday she moved us around.  She gave no explanation, and when asked about it she simply let the class know it was her prerogative to do so and she felt like it.  I appreciated that she didn't say anything conspicuous.

Sometime after that, I recall an incident where she called on another classmate not quite as insufferable as the one previously described.  He wasn't able to correctly answer her, and she stopped the class to walk him through the entire process.  He was frustrated and embarrassed, and became demonstrably more so with each step of the equation.  I studied her throughout that incident, and I could tell she was seething.  There was no doubt she was trying to put him in his place and make an example of him, and everyone knew it.  When he finally reached the correct answer, some classmates began to applaud.  They were mocking him, of course, but even knowing that was the nature of the applause, our teacher lashed out at them: "No! Do not applaud him.  He doesn't deserve it."

That was a private victory for me.  I didn't care for that guy, either, and in light of my seating chart conversation, I was keyed into the subtext that I'm certain my classmates overlooked.  She had no use for antagonists or class clowns who entertain at the expense of others.  She obscured her contempt behind a facade of naivete, but I knew better.

Despite being in on her personal vendetta against the bullies, she never let it show.  She didn't call on me any more regularly than she had before that conversation, she didn't strike up conversation with me before or after class or anything that would have made anyone suspect that I was anything more than just another student who came and went.  That, of course, was the point; had she said or done anything to indicate to anyone that I had any kind of "preferred" status, it would only have invited more antagonism for me.  She was shrewd enough to avoid that.  It gave me some insight into what I suppose it must be like to be a spy, working in anonymity.  No one can ever know about their good deeds, and that's part of the nature of the deed itself.

I learned a lot from her.  I have no idea what math skills I could attribute to her, but she taught me that sometimes the most effective response to a situation isn't to call further attention to it, but rather to outsmart it.  She demonstrated how important it is to pick your battles in life, and to relish the victories that you can score.  More significantly, she taught me that I was a bigger person than I thought I was.  Sometimes, part of growing up is growing into the person other people see you can be.  I like to think I've done that.