Tessellations

Today at school, we talked about writing research based proposal essays, and since today is Valentine’s Day, I gave my class a bit of a prompt to get them going on an in-class exercise. “Because I believe in the power of narrative, and because today is Valentine’s Day, I want to tell you the story of a failed relationship.”

The looks on my students’ faces went from that sort of “I’m with you, but not really, because it’s Tuesday and we’re tired and it’s almost break” to “say what… tell me… tell me…”

“This is the story of how my relationship with math ended.”

Some chuckles, but ultimately, interest.

Here’s the story:

I was a pretty decent student in the eighth grade, as far as I can remember. I don’t recall struggling much in classes beyond the “usual” and math was no different. Math and I have never been on the best terms but we didn’t always hate each other.

I entered eighth grade with only one fear. I had to memorize Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” and perform(?) it for my English class. We all did but back then I was still afraid to speak in front of a crowd (this is a charming trait that would carry on until I reached college). At any rate, that was my biggest fear.

Eighth grade wasn’t exactly life altering in any way. I went to school, did my homework, had fun with my friends, missed recess, and wondered why on earth the bus had to come so early. It was also the year that I’d have my first boyfriend {insert: “ooooohhhhs” from my class today}.

Remember, this is eighth grade. There isn’t a whole lot one can do in terms of “dating” when one is thirteen. Mainly, we held hands during movies and let our parents drive us, and our friends (because eighth graders travel in packs) to and from each other’s houses on weekends.

One day, my math teacher assigned a project that seemed to speak to my soul. It combined the dreaded math with art. We had to create tessellations

I came home pretty excited to embark on my new assignment. I was going to kill it. I could do art.

I sat at my parents’ kitchen table with a box of crayons and a pristine sheet of white paper. I chose to create the outline for my patterned genius in crayon to create a darker, thicker border and then my plan was to fill in my shapes with the same color, different shape, from colored pencil. See? I was thinking like an artist.

tess

I remember sitting at the kitchen table for hours in silence working on this. It was a beautiful sunny day and my parents ended up going out and having fun, leaving me in peace to work.

I was proud of my end result and I happily turned in in the following Monday.

I was not happy to get it back with a big, whopping, ugly, horned, smelly, red, “D+ “on it. I was astonished. I’d never gotten a “D” on anything. I’d never even failed a math test much less math art!

I took it home and I was embarrassed. I wasn’t particularly afraid of getting into trouble, but I didn’t want to bring home a giant “D” either, and we all knew that the “D” didn’t stand for “delightful.”

I told my mom that I was pretty sure I understood tessellations but that I could have been wrong.

My mom and I had a meeting with my teacher to see what we could do at home to bring my grades up.

And this, my friends, is where my relationship with math went south.

It turned out that my grade had nothing to do with the quality of the work that I’d turned in that day. “Melissa rushes through her work so she can spend the rest of the class talking with her friends and that boyfriend of hers.”

Really?

Me?

Rush?

Homework?

(And what did my boyfriend have to do with it!?)

Was she new here?

I didn’t rush anything school related. Ever. I was, and remain, the queen of overthinking the homework perhaps, but rushing it? Nada.

I think my mom and I were equal parts stunned and annoyed. I had been graded for my character rather than the quality of my work. (Thinking of this now, I am reminded of a piece I read for the class I’m currently taking. A piece of writing my Sharon Crowley questions if composition instructors do this same thing.)

I knew that I didn’t. I knew how long and hard I worked on that project and how hard I tried to make good grades.

My mom helped me with the next project I had in that class. I believe we had to draw a map of our neighborhood and calculate angles. I was genuinely afraid that I’d “fail” again if I couldn’t draw a straight line. I couldn’t then, even with a ruler, and I can’t today either. (Every single photograph on the walls in my home hangs on an angle. Oh well. It’s my house. Get over it.)

After that, I know my attitude toward the subject went downhill. Science and I would have a similar breakup, but that was a year and a half down the line.

I entered ninth grade with resistance toward algebra, but I liked my teacher so I tried. Tenth grade geometry wasn’t much better. It revisited the whole shapes and math thing. Enter my old resentment combined with a genuine dislike for everything about the class.

I got through college without taking “real” math and I’m cool with it. I still maintain that I get through every single day without using algebra.

I told this story, albeit abridged a bit, in class today to get my students to do a little pre-thinking before an in-class activity. I gave them the vague problem: “grades are no longer working” and they had to develop a proposal. The idea was for them to practice putting the pieces together and then indicating where they’d need researched support for the idea. They are doing this on their own, but the in-class activity is the equivalent to sniffing coffee beans. It clears their minds enough to return to their own work afterward with a fresh example to follow.

I hadn’t thought about the tessellation assignment in years, but if I trace my abhorrence to math backward, it lands in that eighth grade classroom. Point of origin.

While I was leaving my happy place, my campus, my home away from home, I thought about the one and only time I saw my eighth grade math teacher since then. I was in college and I’d been asked to do a presentation for the marching band kids at their summer camp. Apparently, I had a really good technique for marching and marching backward. (I continue to use this today when I moonwalk out of my classrooms on the last day of each semester.)

Digression aside.

I didn’t speak to her. I don’t think she recognized me but if she did, I didn’t care. I didn’t like her when I was thirteen and I wasn’t over it at twenty.

I broke up with math in the eighth grade and I don’t see a nice reconciliation in the near future.

However, telling this story today did make me think about my relationship with my job. I grade every single day and evaluate writing, which people might fear as much or more than math.

Because of all things, I don’t want to be someone else’s tessellation story. When I look at my students, I don’t see character flaws. Perhaps I see a bit of myself in them instead… and it might be that we’re all flawed, but that’s not for me to judge.

I’m there to teach writing.

End note: I slayed at memorizing Longfellow.

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