The best teacher I ever had who didn’t try to teach me what I learned

Through much of high school, I often fought with my teachers when they tried to bump me up to Honors classes.  I didn’t mesh with people in those classes.  I was perfectly fine, thank you, staying in the Advanced level with my friends.  Friendly people, Advanced students.

So I can’t really tell you how I ended up in Mrs. Burke’s Honors Algebra III.  I think I may have actually signed off on that one.  Shocker.

The first two days of class had me questioning the meaning of life.  Or at least learning math.

A of all, I’m not naturally gifted at math.  That’s one area I don’t take after my dad in–my dad who tells stories of how his high school teacher eventually gave up on correcting his work, because it was always flawless.

B of all, that syllabus had a lot of homework listed on it!  What in the world people!  I’ve got this thing called a job.  And a social life.  Please.

Then I heard the stories.  The Advanced Algebra III teacher gave extra credit on tests if you wore purple on those days.  The Algebra II/Trig guy exchanged class credit for McD’s and, erm, “brownies.”

And here I was, in a class where I would be forced to learn math.

I love making plans–I made specially sure to learn the Korean for “Good plan!’ (Jo-eun gyey-hwek!).  I’m also passive-aggressive in an aggressive way.  Because that makes sense.

So my plan was this: if I could just somehow suggest to Mrs. Burke that I wasn’t made of the right stuff to be in her class, she would see that, yes, I was a miserable, lazy math student and she would then suggest I move down a level before I wasted any more of her time.

Perfect!  Fool proof!  What could go wrong!

I hung around after class, waiting for everyone to empty out and working up the courage to talk with this no-nonsense woman.  Let me paint a picture real quick:

She was a heavy-set woman in her…I have no idea can’t do ages but she had a daughter in middle school…and she had a bob of tight curls (think Miss Frizzle, but lots shorter), thick glasses, and a sense of humor paired with a sharp temper.  Basically, she cut the crap.  You sit down, you shut up, you learn math.  Oh let me tell you this joke about fractions (or whatever you learn in Algebra III).

So it was with hesitation I interrupted her as she read over the papers scattered over her desk.

“Um, Mrs. Burke?”

“Yes?” She glanced up, pen still in hand. Make it quick, I’m busy, as you can see.

“Uh, I was just wondering…well, you see.  This class…(pen tapping, eyes un-blinking)…is a lot more work than I’m used to and, well, do you think…um…(pen tapping, eyes now blinking impatiently)…do you think the advanced class would…have less homework?”

OK, good!  She could see I was apparently incapable of even asking simple questions with obvious answers, let alone solving complex equations.  She could therefore deduce my ineptitude as a student and of learning an advanced level of math, and would surely realize the thing to do now was to agree with my assessment of myself and push me to drop her class.

See how clever I am?  Make it her decision, not mine!  Absolved of all blame and guilt!

“Yes, it would probably have less homework.”

No sign of a smile, eyebrows hinting at boredom, gaze slowly returning to her papers…

“Uh, great.  I was just wondering.  Thanks.”

I scurried out of there (yes, scurried; I think I’m short enough to scurry), wondering what in the world I was going to do.  I don’t do math!  This is too difficult!  I’m going to fail!  I’m just not a math person!

And that’s why I love Mrs. Burke.  She didn’t coddle me, she didn’t sympathize with me, she didn’t try to understand where I was coming from.  She just informed me that, yes, her class involved, Heaven forbid, work!

Work I was completely capable of if I wanted to be.  Work I could excel in if I decided I wanted to do well and put my energy into accomplishing just that.

Success is usually just a decision.  And that’s what my wonderful teacher taught me, without even saying it herself.

I love people who are straight-up, in-your-face, bluntly-honest-types.  I know if I’m in a tough situation, I’ll try to get out of it in the most annoyingly-passive-aggressive ways possible.  I know I’ll need people around me who will raise their eyebrows and mockingly say, “Really?  That’s your excuse?  Don’t be stupid.”

And then walk away.  No coddling.  No babying.

For crying out loud, don’t baby me.  Ironically, I lose respect for people who baby me, even though they may just be trying to help and often I may even ask for it.

Say your piece, then leave me be.

Tough love.  The best kind.

I actually went back to my high school (something I swore I’d never do), a year or two ago.

I found Mrs. Burke in a random corner office and told her, “Thank you.”

Although I doubt she actually remembered me, she said she did, and lying’s just part of being a good teacher.

Oh right, her class.

I got an A.  Duh.

*This post brought to you by me wishing I could talk more with my students and realizing I’ll miss the little buggers but it’s all for the best and maybehopefully I’ve made some sort of positive impact in my time here.


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