What Being the ‘Dumbest Kid in the Class’ Taught Me
November 16, 2022
November 16, 2022
By Bruce Ingram
That day, the first of second semester of my sophomore year in high school, remains one of the most humiliating things that has ever happened to me. My geometry teacher called me to her desk and, in a voice I thought was loud enough for everyone in class to hear, told me that my 35 average for the first semester made it mathematically impossible for me to pass for the year.
Consequently, she had already arranged with guidance for me to be removed from her class and exiled to study hall. I could retake geometry in summer school, she added.
That January 1968 day remains a major influence on how I teach.
In ninth grade, I’d earned a low D for Algebra I, causing a trip to summer school for remediation. It didn’t help, nor did the succession of math tutors my parents hired. Wretched and hating all things math, I settled miserably into my role as the dumbest kid in class, a position I continued to hold through 11th-grade Algebra II and senior year’s Math Survey. The guidance department had sagely deduced that Calculus and Trigonometry were well beyond my skills.
Today, every time I sense that one of my high school English students is struggling mightily in one of my classes or tells me that he or she is, I flash back to my geometry classroom and question whether I’m doing enough to reach those individuals who feel or fear they’re “the dumbest kid in class.”
One of the positives that many teachers possess is that they are very intelligent people who did extremely well in school. But knowledge so easily gained can also be a detriment if we fail to consider that some young people, through no fault of their own, are sometimes overwhelmed by concepts we had no difficulty mastering. And what’s even worse, harsh, unthinking words from teachers (like those from my geometry teacher) can continue to negatively impact students for years to come. Conversely, positive words, like my 10th-grade history teacher, Mrs. Ergle, telling me I was a good writer, can have long-term positive repercussions.
To this day, all things math terrify me. For example, several years ago during a workday at Lord Botetourt, teachers were divided into groups with each individual in every group given an envelope with math-based puzzles to solve – which would lead to the group as a whole solving a later puzzle. The facilitator then orally gave four steps on how to solve the individual and group puzzles.
All my life, I’ve also had difficulty following oral directions if they consist of more than three steps. Making me stress even more, the facilitator announced a time limit for the game. By the time I opened the envelope with what was to me impossible-to-solve math puzzles, my panic-stricken self had forgotten what the first step of the process was, and I had once again become the dumbest kid in class.
Then, kindly, two members of my group, administrator Debbie Harris and biology teacher Julie Foltz, demonstrated what good teaching really is. Sensing my confusion, one of them slowly repeated the directions while the other patiently helped me with the math problems. With their help, I could feel the anxiety slowly fading, and I completed the task.
At my school, we’re on a system where students do a year’s worth of work in a semester. First semester last year, I ran into a student who had made a C in my English 9 General class the year before. That year, I had always thought she had the potential to be a strong writer, but her lack of self-confidence and poor English grades over the years had caused her to hate the subject.
I tried to talk the girl into taking my English 10 Honors class second semester, and was finally able to do so. More than once second semester, she told me she felt like the dumbest kid in my class, but I kept encouraging her and helping her with her writing. Slowly but steadily her writing and confidence improved, and she ended up with an A- average for the year.
On the last day of school, I told her how proud I was of her and she gave me the biggest smile –moments we teachers live for.
Who knows? She might grow up to become a teacher. I know the dumbest kid in a high school geometry class did.
Bruce Ingram (email@example.com), a member of the Botetourt Education Association, teaches English and Creative Writing at Lord Botetourt High School.