My eighth-grade daughter is struggling in math class, and it’s breaking my heart.
To be honest, she struggled last year, too. I expected a little struggle, though; she was taking advanced math, after all. Just that concept–“advanced math”–sort of blew my mind, because math has always been my personal Waterloo, and here she was, plugging away at pre-Algebra at age 12. Hell, I couldn’t even help her with her homework.
“You can never leave me,” I told my husband. “Who would help D. with her math homework? We’d totally be screwed.”
“You’re keeping me around solely for my math ability,” my husband said dryly. “Awesome.”
“You do have other talents,” I admitted. “You can always kill that one pesky fly in the house and you snake a mean toilet. Still, it’s the math ability that makes you golden.”
At the end of my daughter’s 7th-grade year, we weren’t joking any more. Even with my husband’s guidance and extra practice, she barely earned a C in pre-Algebra. She took an evaluation/test for next year’s math placement and tanked it. Her teacher recommended that she not advance to Algebra 1.
When I read the note from her teacher, I wasn’t that alarmed. So she drops down to grade-level math…who cares?
My husband had a completely different reaction.
“Jesus,” he muttered, scanning the note, eyes narrowed. “One test and she moves down? That’s it?”
“She totally bombed, though,” I said.
“But she can do this; I know she can,” he countered. “Does she automatically move down or can we argue that she stay put?”
“I don’t know, but… should we argue for that? What’s the shame in performing at grade-level?” I said. “There is nothing wrong with being at grade level…”
He looked at me like I was nuts.
Of course he did.
Of course he thought I was nuts, because my husband is one of those freaks of nature who never struggled in school–not in ONE single subject. Mr. Freakshow was stellar in all areas: math, science, history, languages, you name it. Not only was he adept at everything, he was a brilliant test-taker. He was a National Merit Scholar and got a sky-high score on his SAT. He spent his teenage years breezing through advanced everything.
Grade-level? Not in his vernacular.
I wasn’t exactly a slouch academically in high school; I took advanced English and advanced Science classes. I won awards in both history and foreign language (German, ja). I made good grades that I studied very, very hard for.
But then there was math.
Math was the real foreign language, and no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many extra hours I spent studying or asking my teachers for extra help–and there were lots of hours–it didn’t make sense. Year after year, I’d complete every lick of homework, put in the sweat and the overtime, and when I sat down to take a test? Blank space. White noise. I’d sit there, paralyzed, watching as the clock ticked down. I’d hand in my test with a sick, sinking feeling in my gut.
Almost worse than the tests were the hours spent in class, because there always was that point where the teacher would finish a lesson and say, “Does that make sense? Everyone understand? Any questions?”
I’d think, “No. No. And yes,” and wonder if I dared raise my hand again, because I was that kid, and you know what I’m talking about, I was that one kid in class who was dumber than everyone else and slower than everyone else and everyone else knew it. They knew it and were grateful that it wasn’t them. I was that kid. It sucks to be that kid.
“She kind of breaks my heart,” my 11th grade math teacher told my parents. “Every morning and lunch hour, she’s in here for help. I’ve never seen any kid work so hard, and she just…” he sighed and shook his head. “Well. I just have to say. She couldn’t work any harder.”
Other teachers were not so kind. My persistent ignorance was annoying. I could see the irritation flash across their faces and knew they were thinking, “Jesus, this girl is a blockhead.”
Did I want that for my daughter?
Of course I didn’t. And watching her struggle brought up all of the old ghosts of math classes past, rattling their chains and moaning in my corners.
In the end, though, it wasn’t my decision.
After much discussion, my daughter decided that rather than drop down a level, she’d spend the summer with a math tutor. She went four days a week all summer, without protest. She didn’t even pout about spending the summer that way–not even once.
“Man, I’m impressed,” I told my husband. “If I had to spend my summer doing math, I’d be bitter as hell.”
By the end of the summer, the tutoring club said they were happy with her progress. Miss D. went into Algebra 1 feeling confident and proud of her hard work.
And then the test scores started rolling in. 44%. 56%. 60%. 47%.
Even with all of that extra help. All of that extra effort. She even did extra hours of homework voluntarily, for no credit, just practice.
I watched her confidence falter, then fade, then crash.
“I hate this,” I told my husband. “Do you know how absolutely soul-crushing it is to put your sweat and tears into something and get absolutely no result? To just work and work but you fail anyways? It’s hideous. I feel so bad for her.”
We made an appointment to meet with her math teacher and begged him to be brutally honest. “She’s sitting at a 64%,” I wrote in the email. “Now is not the time for subtlety.”
Long story short, Miss D. began a new schedule this week. A schedule that includes grade-level math. There were tears–some out of frustration, some out of relief, some out of fear of change.
Not all of the tears were hers, either.
The ghosts rattle their chains and moan in my corners. My only hope is that those ghosts stay mine.