Bad At Small Talk

Algernon Never Dealt With These People

WHO I WAS: A student with a mild numerical learning disability at a private midwestern college preparatory school. I had transferred there from the suburban Kansas City public schools as a ninth grader when my emotionally unstable mother got a job from her sympathetic, mindbendingly rich younger brother. During my time in public school, my peers and I would annually take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. My scores on the reading and writing portions admitted me into the district’s “gifted” program. My math scores admitted me into something different altogether. So before I moved to this college prep school, I would spent a period on Tuesdays and Thursdays in a class called “Intellectial Giftedness,” where the students would discuss Science Olympiad projects and SAT prep courses. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays included a period in a class called “Learning Disabilities,” where the students would talk about how much they loved grape juice.

WHO THEY WERE The math teachers I had over four years at a college prep school that did not offer remedial classes and did not often admit students with mild numerical learning disabilities, unless of course they had a mindbendingly rich uncle on the board of directors.

MR. ALVAREZ [Algebra I and Geometry, freshman and sophomore year] I had transferred about a month after classes started at this school, and with Algebra I the first class on my class schedule, Mr. Alvarez represented my first encounter with a teacher at the college prep school. I remember being the first one to walk into his classroom that morning, and the first thing he said to me was “I think you’ll like this class. All the good-looking girls are in this period.” He was young, late 20s, with black hair that he combed back and held with hair gel. Despite his name, he did not look Hispanic. I would learn later that this was his first teaching job. He would learn soon that I had no idea what algebra was.

The main thing I recall about my first year of math at this school was Mr. Alvarez becoming inspired by my dumbassery. As soon as he realized the hopelessness of my situation, he began arranging private meetings with me where he would expound on the virtues of focusing on academics and becoming organized. He also suggested I get a girlfriend in order to help me study. I remember him saying this in the same tone one would say “Get a three-ring binder.”

My sophomore year, I had him again, this time for Geometry. Mr. Alvarez was no longer interested in inspiring me by then. By then, he was interested in breaking off his lectures and discussing the importance of conforming young children to the ways of logic. He began showing up for class wearing wrinkled, un-ironed clothes. He would snap at students, myself included. His eyes were constantly red and puffy. For our year-end final exam, Mr. Alvarez spent the allotted two hours telling us his life story before lecturing us on his theory of “thinking in four dimensions.” A theory, he said, he came to after being informed that his teaching contract would not be renewed. A year later, Mr. Alvarez was spotted working as a clerk at a trendy clothing store in the local mall. He never did give us an actual final, and each member of the class of 1999 graduated hoping they wouldn’t have to take Geometry in college.

MR. KEEFER [Algebra II, junior year] Mr. Keefer was a short, pear-shaped man in his 60s with a corny sense of humor, rosy cheeks, bright eyes and a black, angry heart.

Somehow, I had scraped through Algebra I, and everyone who took Geometry under Mr. Alvarez was given a passing grade by the school administration after his breakdown. By this time, there was a growing understanding from both my academic advisor and my college counselor that I was more than just a kid who was bad at math. The chair of the math department, the amiable Mr. Farmer, even began arranging private tutoring sessions, admitting at one point that I clearly had a problem that went beyond aptitude.

Mr. Keefer, however, would have none of this. His thought, grounded in absolutely no evidence whatsoever, was that I was a poor math student because I didn’t try. He told me I had a “mental block” when it came to mathematics, one that developed over the years through hearing people tell me I was bad with numbers. “You just don’t want to learn,” was a favorite phrase. His method of stripping me from this crutch was to call on me often during class, ignoring the raised hands to say “Doug, what’s this? You know this.” When I said I didn’t know, he’d counter with “Yes you do! Yes you do!” This went on for a few months until, during a particularly tense back-and-forth, I snapped and yelled “I DON’T KNOW! WHY CAN’T YOU LEAVE ME ALONE, YOU HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE MAN?!?” That led to a meeting with the Dean of Students, then a meeting with my academic advisor, after which it was decided I would finish the year under Mr. Farmer effective immediately.

MRS. FROGGATTE [AP Statistics, senior year] The curriculum at this school was designed so that the student would end up taking AP courses in pretty much everything. There was no way to avoid it. Plotting out my senior class load, my college counselor suggested AP Statistics would be more accessible than AP Algebra, thus limiting the damage to my college transcript. He really did say “limiting the damage.” Mrs. Froggatte was new to the school, having previously worked at one of the city’s terrible public schools before (totally understandably) working for a bank. I was suspicious, but also heartened. She had taught in a city school. Surely I would not be her first dumb kid.

My first impression of her was that I didn’t know what the hell she was. Really. She had very dark skin, to the point where you might think she was black. But she wasn’t. She wasn’t Hispanic either. Some theorized she was American Indian. The irony here was that had anyone told her that the entire student body was guessing at her heritage, she would have laughed hysterically. Younger than I expected, in her mid 30s, Mrs. Froggatte had both a sense of humor and a conviction that math should only be taught if it has a use in the real world. She also had a conviction that a student like myself had no business in an AP math class (tell me about it, Mrs. F.) She initially greeted the fact that there was no place else to store me with something like horror. Yet after the horror, she did something strange.

One day, she asked me to stop by her classroom after school. Closing the door behind her, she sat down at her desk and said “Look, you don’t need this. I’ve seen your grades in other classes. You can’t do math, but you can do everything else. If you graduate from here, you’ll go to college. If we can somehow make it seem like you can do even a little math, you’ll go to a good college.” Her plan was this: At six every morning, before the rest of the school opened, we would meet in her classroom. Together, we would go through the assignment that was due that day. She would walk me through the problems, show me how to arrive at the answers, and yes, give me the answers. Then, five hours later, she would take my worksheet along with everyone else’s and grade it accordingly. Because I did not have a car and usually had to rely on either one of my baseball teammates or my own feet to get to school (my mom liked to sleep,) Mrs. Froggatte would pick me up at my house in order to get me to school early enough. Which is how I learned something about Mrs. Froggatte.

Sweet Jesus, was she loaded.

One day she would pick me up in black Eddie Bauer Expedition. The next day, a Porsche. Yes, my math teacher would pick me up in a Porche. Turned out her husband owned an accounting firm, or something like that. I never met him, but I learned his name was Theron. To this day, Theron Froggatte remains one of my favorite names.

My grade in AP Statistics crept slowly upward. I don’t know if anyone knew she was “cheating” me. I have a feeling they did. My high school was really unique as far as the other kids went. Most had money, all came from stable families and all made good grades. I had neither. Yet this only seemed to bring everyone closer to me. I never felt like an outcast at my high school. People rooted for me.

Yet there was a problem. I would ace my assignments, yet flunk my tests. And by flunk, I mean not get a single question right. This kept my grade low, and probably signaled a serious red flag when juxtaposed with my perfect daily assignments. So before one test, Mrs. Froggatte asked me to shove my desk next to hers. She handed test sheets out to everyone and said “One more thing: Doug is going to sit up here with me, and if he has questions, I’m going to answer them. Does anyone have a problem with that?” It really was like something out of those formulaic teacher movies. I probably should have been embarrassed.

So I aced my tests. I aced the final. Of course, I bombed on the math portions of the ACT and SAT, but my verbal scores bested most of my classmates. I found a small liberal arts college that was interested in my fantastic AP Statistics grades, and managed to convince them that my bad standardized test scores were due to “performance anxiety” (hopefully the last time I have to use that phrase.) I was admitted, and overjoyed to learn the school did not have any required math courses for freshmen.

WHO I AM NOW I’m 28, and my friends say I’m a successful journalist. I can’t balance my checkbook or do basic math in my head, and if I don’t write phone numbers down immediately I forget them. But that’s about as far as it goes. Mrs. Froggatte was right. I didn’t need to learn anything she was teaching. Best teacher I ever had.

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December 3, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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