You never really know how words are going to land until they’ve been launched into space and received by their intended target. Did they get through? Bounce off? Stick hard?
Sometimes the effect is not exactly what was intended—and you may never even know it.
That’s why it’s a pretty good idea that we think before we speak, but…we are imperfect beings where sometimes our mouths work faster than our brains. I certainly know I’ve spoken words I wish I had given more thought to.
When I think about it, I am amazed at how an offhanded comment made to me really affected my life. I was just sharing this story with my son the other day, as we were talking about the value of studying math.
As a writer, it may not be shocking for me to reveal that math and I are not best friends. My brain is way more interested in art than algebra…but I think a flippant remark helped solidify that lack of faith I have in myself and my mathematical mind.
I was never drawn to math, but I certainly was drawn to good grades, so I worked hard and kept an A average in my math classes. As I got older, that challenge became harder. I just don’t understand numbers the way I understand words. (Though I LOVED geometry!)
Things Just Didn’t Add Up
Flash back to a 16-year-old girl sitting in her advanced algebra class and wishing that x would find y and tell me what the hell was going on. As my teacher wrote yet another lengthy equation on the board, I raised my hand and asked “The Question.” Please trust me that there was no tone behind it—I truly wanted to know why… ”Why do we have to learn this?” I asked.
Who knew that the next few words uttered were about to stick hard? In the seconds to come, my teacher was going to tell me something that affected how I saw math for the remainder of my academic days and impact the future teacher that I didn’t even know I was to become.
He turned around and looked at me, pointed his chalked up finger my way and said, “You don’t need to learn why. You only need to learn how.”
And with those words, any value that algebra might have been to me was lost. If I only needed to know how, then I only needed to do my homework and take my tests to get my A and close the door behind me. Math was just something to get through and nothing more.
Why Couldn’t He Answer the Why?
Years later, I knew what his answer should have been. Had he turned around and—still with chalky finger in air—told me that, while I may not choose a career path that required this level of math, I was certainly not going to live a life without any problems. And algebra is problem solving. And your brain is a muscle that needs exercising just like any other muscle in your body. So…when you learn and do algebra, your brain is “working out” to get stronger at problem solving.
Had he given me that answer, while I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have then seen math as fun or eagerly embraced it, I would have learned its value…to me. I would have understood that the struggles I was going through to learn it were worth it because it was helping train my brain for real life.
It would have mattered to me.
Instead, I felt an even greater distance between math and myself, and I had no reason to try and change that.
Those words stuck hard.
I know my teacher probably had no idea that his flippant remark would affect me so. Perhaps he was just having a bad day (he seemed to have a lot of those), but his words landed and shaped a part of my outlook. I wonder what my math future might have been with a response that helped me believe in its value. I know I would never end up a math whiz like Good Will Hunting, but maybe I would have been a better example to the world that girls can do math. Maybe.
When my life journey led me to teaching, this experience came along with me. I knew that I was never going to respond to a student’s question of “why” without really answering it.
“Why do we have to learn commas?”
“Why do we have to read Shakespeare?”
“Why do we have to write a research paper?”
They all received answers.
I even shared my story of “the answer gone wrong” with them—partly to have them understand why I would stop class to answer, and partly in hopes that someone sitting in one of those desks who might be struggling with math would go…hmmm…
Sometimes the students would take advantage of my commitment to answering the whys of life by asking me a “why” question to get me off track. It would work—I would let it work—at least until I answered the question. We would then move on, maybe even a bit refreshed, maybe even sharing a laugh together. But I always believed that all of that was worth it.
Sometimes our words stick harder than we intend. Perhaps a short fuse causes us to fire off a sharp answer, or a lack of attention results in a response that makes the other person feel as though their input doesn’t really matter. Whatever the case, while we should always give grace both ways, we should remember the power our words can carry.
In the end, though my math teacher’s comment slammed the door on math for me, it did help me to be a teacher who tried hard to not only validate for my students what they were learning, but validate them, as well. Those words offered a serious con, but also a serious pro.
Sometimes when I hear my husband talking over math with my son, it’s similar to listening to Chinese (or Pokemon chatter) for me. That’s okay. He may not be able to seek much algebraic homework help from me, but I think he knows he can count on me to answer the whys of his life the best I can.
(Get it? “Count on me”? I may suck at math, but damn, I’m punny.)
This piece was originally posted on The Juggle Struggle.