Deep in the recesses of my brain are memories of Algebra 1. In the fall of 1980 I took Algebra 1 in a fragile state, and it didn’t end particularly well. I’d moved to a town I wasn’t particularly fond of, went to a school with a bunch of people I didn’t know, and was taking a class that I was indifferent to. If I excelled in English, History and other classes of the time, my fourteen-year-old mind just couldn’t wrap itself around Algebra 1.
I would bring my homework home, ignore it as long as possible, try to tackle it when I was falling asleep, and bring it incomplete into school. The Algebra teacher at the time had a tactic to ensure that students would do their homework; Public embarrassment. He’d have as all march up to the chalk board and do one of the assigned problems for all to see. So a row of us would shuffle up to the chalk board, and one by one students would finish the problem and sit down. Until there was only one person standing, staring at an unfinished problem on the board. That would be me.
I’m not sure how many times we went through this exercise, but it was many times. If the teacher was trying to shame me into doing the homework, it didn’t have the desired effect. Instead I grew to hate Algebra 1 more, and became more reluctant to do the homework, and the cycle continued. Rather than work with me, he seemed to be as indifferent to my struggles as I was to the subject.
And then something funny happened. I was moved into another Algebra class with a different teacher. This new teacher had us do the problems in class, and helped us work through the problems when we needed him. And when we finished our work he had chess boards in the classroom and we’d play chess until the bell rang. So we all hustled to finish our homework as quickly as possible so we could play chess. I got an A in that class and while I’ve never been a math wiz it broke the hex that was hovering in my head.
I learned three things from that teacher. First, that Algebra could be fun. Second, that chess was a magical game that I quickly fell in love with. And third and most importantly, learning takes commitment from both sides. I own the responsibility for my initial failures with Algebra, but so did that teacher. I don’t remember the first math teacher at all, but I can still picture the second teacher. I wonder if the two ever discussed the quirky, quiet redhead who took Algebra 1 with them. I ended up being one of the students marched up on stage in senior year to get academic awards from the teaching staff. It was a long way from the Freshman Algebra 1 class.