"I'm no good at math."
I must have heard this come out of my daughter's mouth a thousand times over the years. When she was in primary school, she would hide behind the curtains and cry when it came time to review her math homework. She hated it so much, and there was no convincing her otherwise.
Then we moved to Florida from Britain, and she joined the international baccalaureate program at Largo High School during second semester, ninth grade. The IB coordinator took a chance on her, and into Algebra 2 Honors she went. (He warned me it was hard, and he wasn't kidding.) Unsurprisingly, it was a major shock to her system; it's hard enough to switch schools, much less countries. She failed math quiz after math quiz. But her teacher, Mr. Britton (no, the irony is not lost on me), wouldn't give up on her--he'd work with her, one on one, every Wednesday after school. Instead of making her learn American math methods, he adapted to her British methods. She passed Algebra 2 with a B, thanks to his patience and diligence. Then we found out he was moving to New York City, and I panicked--what would she do without him?
And along came Dee Baker, the new IB math teacher, from Virginia. She said on her first parents' evening that she decided to become a math teacher to help kids who hated math, because she hated math as a kid, too. Ed and I were blown away by her--she was inspiring, enthusiastic, organized and fair. She made math fun, but didn't put up with any nonsense. She demanded excellence with a smile.
Georgina was taught by Mrs. Baker for three years. Mrs. Baker taught Georgina not only math, but more importantly, persistence, patience and grit. She learned that hard work often pays off. As Georgina wrote in one of her college essays, "I learned that, 'Hey, I'm actually pretty good at math.'"
Mrs. Baker inspired a girl to excel in a subject that girls are taught from a very young age, with both conscious and unconscious bias, that they aren't very good at.
And this week, Georgina won a math award at the high school's annual awards ceremony.
I hugged Mrs. Baker afterwards, trying not to cry, and told her she changed Georgina's life. Mrs. Baker modestly replied, "She did all the hard work." I responded, "She used to hate math. You gave her the tools and the confidence to overcome her fear of math. Consider this moment one of those reasons why you do what you do--your influence on her will last her whole life."
And I speak from experience. When I was in ninth grade at Clearwater High School, I had an English teacher named Joyce Parker. We learned this week that sadly, Mrs. Parker has died. She was, in the words of my good childhood friend Peggy, a "tough cookie. She taught me the beauty of the five-paragraph essay." And my wonderful childhood friend Sarah Lynn, whose mother also taught English with Mrs. Parker, said, "Without her I would not have sought out Kipling when I'm in need of solace. We learned how to write properly and take care with our spelling."
Like Mrs. Baker, Mrs. Parker was kind, and she also didn't put up with any nonsense. I hated memorising Julius Caesar. I was bored by writing the root meanings of prefixes and suffixes on index cards. And yet I remember nearly all of them to this day (but of course forget where I've put my handbag). And as an editor and a writer, I use the knowledge that Mrs. Parker beat into me every single day of my working life. I liked her, and I respected her. She made me work hard, and I knew that the As I got in her class, I earned, just as Georgina did.
Teachers put up with a lot of crap. I know firsthand, because I trained as a high school social studies teacher. By chance, instead of a high school, I ended up at Forbes in New York, and the rest is media history. The hours teachers put in are long, they are underpaid, and the level of hassle is off the charts. And yet these wonderful human beings persist. They change lives. They make the world better. Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Parker, you left your mark on many, many children. And Dee Baker, as with me and Joyce Parker, I guarantee you that Georgina will remember you, and still be using the tools you taught her, long after we are both gone.