48: The Girl Who Didn’t Get It

48: The Girl Who Didn’t Get It

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Girl Who Didn’t Get It

With but few exceptions, it is always the underdog who wins through sheer willpower.

~Johnny Weissmuller

As a first-year, sixth grade math teacher, I thought there were three kinds of students: those who immediately got it, those who eventually got it, and those who never got it.

When I gave up a successful career in journalism to try teaching, my hopes were high. Perhaps a tad too high. I envisioned myself as Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, saving inner-city kids one school day at a time until peace and harmony prevailed in the land of public education.

But after two months I was drowning in lesson plans, parent-teacher conferences and grading rubrics. I will never be able to help the kids who don’t get it, I thought. By Thanksgiving, I was ready to quit.

The kids who did get it were easy. Two of my students, Steven and Derek, seemed to grasp mathematical concepts almost by instinct, their brilliant minds able to understand new skills before I even finished explaining them. I often felt like I was wasting their time by continuing with the lesson.

One day in class, I decided to separate the kids into three teams and have them compete to solve math problems, relay-style. By luck of the draw, Steven was up for Team 1, Derek for Team 2, and a girl named Alyssa for Team 3.

My heart sank. Alyssa was the opposite of Steven and Derek. She was the one who didn’t get it. She had no mind for math and took forever to pick up new concepts, if she ever learned them at all. She also happened to be one of the sweetest girls in class, one who always wore a shy smile and never said a bad word about anybody.

Part of me felt guilty for pitting her against the two future NASA engineers. Should I put an end to the game in favor of a more traditional lesson? I wondered. Steven and Derek were already at the board, chalk poised, eager to go. Teams 1 and 2 exchanged smug looks, knowing this was a two-man battle. The students on Team 3 rolled their eyes and sank in their chairs dejectedly.

My heart broke for Alyssa, but really, wouldn’t any kid in the class lose to Derek and Steven? I gave Alyssa a smile and forged ahead.

“Express the fraction 13 over 80 as a percentage,” I instructed. “Go!”

The boys were off like racehorses, setting up the problem correctly and whizzing through the execution. Alyssa stared up into the atmosphere, waiting for the answer to appear in a cloud above her head. By the time she started writing, Teams 1 and 2 were screaming wildly. Steven and Derek were already done.

“Steven was first, Mrs. Zimmers!” Team 1 yelled. (They insisted on calling me “Mrs.” even though I wasn’t married.)

I moved toward Steven to check his work. Unbelievably, he had the wrong answer. He had successfully divided 80 into 13 to get 0.1625, but he had only moved the decimal to the right one place instead of two, making his final answer 1.63% when it should have been 16.25%.

“I’m sorry, that’s incorrect,” I said.

Team 2 burst into cheers, believing the victory was theirs. I moved over to check Derek’s work, assuming this would be the end of the round. Poor Alyssa was still dividing away in her slow, methodical manner, but I was pleased to see she had at least set up the problem correctly.

As I looked over Derek’s answer, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He, too, had the decimal in the wrong spot. He had made the same mistake as Steven. I was incredulous; they so rarely made errors.

“I’m sorry, Derek. That’s also incorrect.”

“This is a stupid contest!” Steven grumbled.

The boys turned back to the chalkboard, trying to figure out where they went wrong. As I watched them futilely rework their division, I also watched Alyssa, who was inching closer and closer to her own answer. My heart started beating a little faster. Go, Alyssa, go! Kick those boys’ butts!

“I just checked it, Mrs. Zimmers,” Derek insisted. “The answer is right.”

His division was right. But his final answer wasn’t.

“I’m sorry,” I said firmly. “It isn’t.”

They were two boys who were used to getting high-fives and pats on the head for every answer they gave. And now nothing. They were flustered. And both their teams were screaming at them, adding to the pressure. They were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, with a lowly 16 threatening an upset.

Through it all, Alyssa kept working. Team 3 suddenly came alive, as they realized Alyssa might actually score them a point.

“Come on, Alyssa! You’re beating them!”

I am embarrassed to admit this, but I joined them. I began screaming my head off, jumping up and down, and clapping my hands like a crazed seal for Alyssa.

“You can do it, Alyssa! You can beat them! Just keep going!”

Steven and Derek turned to me in surprise and anger.

“No fair, Mrs. Zimmers! You’re not supposed to take sides!”

I definitely wasn’t supposed to take sides. I knew that rooting for one student meant I was effectively rooting against another, and good teachers don’t do that. But the idea that this girl — the one at the bottom of the class, always in danger of failing the next test, never being the kid who got it — could triumph over these two was overwhelming. Derek and Steven had experienced a lifetime of academic triumphs. This was possibly Alyssa’s only shot.

I never stopped screaming. Right or wrong, I couldn’t help myself.

Alyssa finally finished, taking a full minute, it seemed, to make the chalk stroke on the last digit of her solution. The room became quiet as everyone waited for my nod of approval. Did she have the right answer?

She did. 16.25%.

“Point goes to Team 3!” I yelled with more enthusiasm than was appropriate for a teacher. I hugged Alyssa as the rest of Team 3 leapt out of their seats and cheered.

The profession of teaching ate me alive. The high hopes I had had when I started were quickly obliterated, and I gained a newfound respect for those who lasted in the job. I managed only a year before I went scurrying back to journalism like a frightened mouse. But when I think about that year, the bright moments outshine the tedium of the job and my own failures. I see brilliantly bright, blinding moments like Alyssa remembering what she learned about decimals at the perfect time.

I no longer think students — or any of us — fit into three categories. We’re all just human. At times, we make mistakes; at others, we achieve the impossible.

~Jenine Zimmers

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