Heavy Armor


Here’s a picture. This happened in my classroom last week. This simple, beautiful moment is one I will cherish more than a million free burritos.

Look closely. It might not be apparent, but this student is behind my desk, fiddling with some of my chachkies. He’s telling me about a concert he got to go to this weekend.

It might not be obvious from the picture but this kid isn’t a huge fan of mathematics. In fact, he might be convinced that the whole discipline has it out for him.

There’s more to the story. This child walked into my room two months ago with his headphones in his ears and a chip on his shoulder. He made it completely clear he was there for one reason: to earn his credit.  Often he would refuse to complete any work and when he knew that wasn’t an option, he was quick to proclaim that he “didn’t get any of this.” He maintained his angry demeanor like a coat of armor.  Mathematics had let him down so many times before. Why would this trimester be any different? But what manifests as anger on the surface is perhaps pain, sadness, or fear underneath.
Every day I have this student for a “homeroom” of sorts. This means that after lunch, the class comes back to my room for 25 minutes. During this time, I saw this kid slowly open up.  Without the anxiety of the mathematics in play, I began to see underneath scars from an educational system that doesn’t help him thrive. He started taking off the headphones when he walks in the room at the beginning of class. Even though he usually responds with “sick” or “tired” when I ask how he is, at least there’s an acknowledgement of my greeting.

Then he begins to do math. Not just to “get his credit,” but he really wants to figure it out. His work becomes more than numbers on the page for his daily points. “Don’t look at my answer. You need to figure it out yourself,” he begins saying to his classmates. “My brain hurts. This class makes me feel like I’m growing a brain tumor.” And he keeps working. I know brain tumors aren’t joking matters, but I’ve never loved them more.


  1. This is a problem that is as old as education– perhaps, or maybe just within the last couple of decades: The system manages to suck natural inquisitiveness, curiosity and creativity right out of students through systematic pigeon-holing, so that eventually, anything a student does becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Your student at some point was probably told– perhaps not directly– that math was not his thing. Hearing it enough times, he became convinced of it.

    But I have found that these students are a little like squirrels: with time and patience they will eventually come around and eat from your hand and not see the teacher as the enemy. They are cautious at first, but still curious and soon see that the teacher has something to offer and it comes without danger or fear.

    I had one student who was struggling with writing, so I took the time during my prep to work with her. About halfway through the editing, I noticed she was crying. I was afraid that I had said something to upset her. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Why are you crying?” She wiped the tear from her eye and said, “Because you care.”

    She was a junior. Was this the only time in her educational life that a teacher showed her they cared? We have been best friends ever since.

    That, Megan, should give you hope that what you are doing,that what you have done will have an impact upon that student in ways that you cannot imagine. Kudos to you! Bravo!

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