This is probably a weird thing to say, but here it is: I had a bad year when I was in third grade.
As a thirty-six year old, looking back, I realize that sometimes, events synch up in just the wrong way, so as to make life difficult. As a thirty six year old, I can be objective and realize that a bad moment … or week … or even year … is only an instance in time that will pass.
As a third grader, I may have lacked some perspective.
Here’s what happened when I was in third grade: my regular math teacher had a baby and went on maternity leave. We had a long term sub.
She (ahem) may not have been the best teacher ever.
And I (ahem) may nearly have failed math. Despite the fact that I worked incredibly hard, I didn’t get it and she – bless her heart – didn’t know how to explain it to me.
Until that point, I’d done well in school. Nearly failing math was devastating. I stopped liking school and began enduring it. Even the subjects I enjoyed, the subjects I was good in, were tainted because I knew that, eventually, I’d get to math, and everyone would know that I was incredibly dumb.
Third grade ended and I didn’t want to go to fourth grade. Fortunately, fourth graders are not, as a rule, allowed or encouraged to run away and join the circus or drop out of school.
Off I went. Defeated and math illiterate.
And that’s when I met Mrs Porter, who took one look at a pigtailed fourth grader and saw a sad little soul who had the potential to be something. And if you had asked her what that something would be, she would have said, triumphantly: “Anything she wants!”
I was struggling through math one day – like usual – and she said, “Danielle. Look at me.”
I looked up. She gently cupped my face in her hands. “Something in your head doesn’t like numbers,” she said. “We can fix this. I will not give up if you do not give up. Do we have a deal?”
Until that moment, I had not thought that teachers were there to help you. I thought they were there to drop information into our heads, like momma birds, and we were supposed to receive it, our brains open like hungry beaks. I thought we were just supposed to get it. I had NO IDEA that they would go out of their way to help you to learn.
(I should add here that I had good teachers before Mrs Porter. I just hadn’t struggled with them , so the notion of help, the notion of guidance, had never occurred to me.)
And let me tell you, Mrs Porter did. Boy did she ever. I still don’t like math, but because of her I completed college level calculus as a senior in high school.
Because, you see, I’d promised Mrs Porter that I would not give up. We had made a deal, and she had always – ALWAYS – kept her end of the bargain.
When I became a teacher, I had the opportunity to work with Mrs Porter. She said to me one day, “You know, Danielle, you can call me Heidi.”
“Oh, Mrs Porter,” I said. “I’ll try.”
I was never able to. It made her laugh.
Mrs Porter passed away this week.
She lived an extraordinary life – I could have told you about how she grew up in Germany, survived WWII, survived the communist occupation of her hometown, all of the details that obituaries list, but I wanted to tell you this – the thing that made her amazing, the thing that made her outstanding as a human being? Was that ability to look at someone and see all of the potential that they brought to the table, and to ask what she would need to do to draw it out.
For me, that is her legacy. I hear her voice in my head, sometimes, when I am having a bad day: “I will not give up if you do not give up. Do we have a deal?”
And I know I can’t quit. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Because she kept her side of the bargain, so I have to keep mine.
Good bye, Mrs Porter.
And thank you.