Teacher Tales

It's a Great Day to Be Alive!R5

Kate Lynn Mishara

May you live life every day of your life.

—Jonathan Swift

I stink at math. I really stink at it. Early in life, this lack of skill laid the groundwork for a strong dislike toward the subject and an ongoing effort to avoid it at all costs. So how is it that the most influential person in all of my educational career was my high school math teacher?

As a freshman in high school I was far from a math teacher's dream student. My mind was full of things that high school girls tend to focus on: boys, boys, and well  ... boys. I immersed myself in my social life, and my classes often took a back seat to other priorities.

I walked into Mr. A's classroom a chatty and bubbly fourteen-year-old girl. My primary focus was on picking a good seat, surrounded by my friends and with easy access to the door. From day one, I was very vocal about having a distain for math and I was even more vocal about my constant confusion. It was not uncommon for me to give up midway through an assignment, or zone out during a lesson because I didn't understand it. It wasn't that I didn't want to do well, but simply that I didn't think I was capable of doing well. "I can't," became my permanent state of mind in all things math related.

However, I was soon to learn that "I can't" was not an option in Mr. A's class.

On the first day of class, Mr. A greeted us with his arms extended as he proclaimed, "Welcome! Smile! It's a great day to be alive!" That phrase, which I would hear frequently over the course of the next four years, became an ever-present source of comfort and familiarity. From that moment forward, it was clear that Mr. A had a true passion not only for math, but for teaching. His positive and uplifting attitude never faltered. If Mr. A ever experienced the bad days of normal life, he never showed it. While some teachers forcefully told us not to cross them, they were "just having a bad day," Mr. A greeted us with that same enthusiasm each and every day.

This welcoming and uplifting personality mirrored Mr. A's teaching methods. Not only were his methods engaging, but his positive attitude was contagious. He encouraged each student, from the valedictorian to the self-proclaimed "I can't" student.

I found myself looking forward to math class, despite the fact that I still despised the subject itself. There was just something about being in Mr. A's presence that made me feel good, as if I had the potential to succeed. However, my story is not one of overnight success. I did not become a straight-A math student, and I continued to struggle with several concepts. In fact, it was in Mr. A's class that I received my first failing test grade, and I can still remember my eyes filling with tears as I stared at the 63 in bold red letters. I had failed. And more importantly, I had failed Mr. A.

This 63 became a defining moment in my math career. I could have given up and used the score as proof to Mr. A and to myself that I was not meant to do well in math. Similarly, Mr. A could have given up on me. But instead, he did the opposite. He became even more determined to help me with my math, and even more importantly, to help me see my potential.

As the year progressed, my determination to succeed grew. I spent an increasing amount of time on my homework, and I met with Mr. A weekly. My classmates began to do the same, and it became "cool" to have lunch with Mr. A. We didn't know it at the time, but he was transforming our attitudes. My hard work began to pay off and my grades slowly began to climb. There were road bumps, of course. Low grades and difficult concepts threatened to deter me, and sometimes succeeded in bringing me down. But a frown on my face almost always resulted in a bellowing, "Kate, smile! It's a great day to be alive!"

The year came to an end, and my classmates and I were surprised to find ourselves sad to move on from ninth grade math. We had found a home for ourselves in Mr. A's class, a comfortable learning environment which we feared would be impossible to replicate in a different teacher's classroom. And it was. Tenth grade proved to be a struggle: a new math teacher, new topics, and a sense of solitude. Mr. A's engaging lessons were replaced with hours of busy work, and my grades reflected this lack of personal attention. I longed to be back in Mr. A's class, and I was overjoyed to find myself there again the following year.

My junior and senior years were marked with many milestones: prom, the SATs, graduation. But perhaps the most important milestones were the accomplishments that took place back in Mr A's class. A's on the math section of my report card, a nearly perfect score on my math SAT, and a feeling of inner pride that I had never before experienced.

High school is undoubtedly a time of growth, both physically and emotionally, as well as academically and socially. I can honestly say that I experienced much of this growth sitting in my second row seat, just behind the door, in Mr. A's classroom. Today, when the work is piled up on my desk and I feel my mind beginning to think "I can't," I hear a deep voice in the back of my mind reminding me to take a deep breath and remember: it's a great day to be alive.

(987 words)