Math. What an odd love affair we have had in this lifetime. As a young child, your numbers were everything. How old was I? How tall was I? What was my address? My phone number?
In school your problems made me feel like I’d arrived. If a train leaves a station in Columbia, MD at 9:00 a.m. traveling 70 miles per hour, what time will it arrive in Pittsburgh, PA? I could find the correct answer only after unpacking so many variables. I loved the challenge of your word problems.
My fascination with you only grew when numbers and letters co-mingled. 3x+2=14. Solve for x. I can feel my heartbeat increasing as I write this. I have to stop and figure it out.
3x + 2 = 14
Change sides, change signs. I am getting giddy.
3x = 14 – 2
Skip ahead to x = 4.
I would ask my teacher for more math problems which landed me in advanced math, which meant being in classes with people older than I and eventually classes on a college campus when I was a high school junior. This, in turn, meant other classes at the college, small group literature clubs and so much more.
Thank you math. What a world you unlocked for me.
As I ventured into teaching, I would hear students suffer, “I hate math.” I could hear colleagues and parents grumble, “I’m not a math person,” and brush off the intoxicating nature of your calculations. At WCDS we actually made a pact among the faculty that no one would utter that sentiment, no matter how true …without adding the word yet. “I am not a math person…yet.” We believe in the power of learning something new. We also know the children are listening, so we need to proudly show our fascination with math or our vulnerability in the face of your challenges.
Last summer my favorite moment wasn’t watching the tide roll back out to the sea. It was watching a child who struggles with math roll playdough into different size rods to represent units, tens, hundreds and so forth, so he could use his hands to build his number sense.
Ah sweet, math, how you have served me…what joy you have brought me. Yet I regularly turn my back and dedicate myself to words, filling even this article with wit and puns that only words allow in their storytelling.
Still, you are there for me. When I need you most, you raise up and show me your brilliance. When my youngest struggled with stress that would sneak up on her unexpectedly, I could think of little to do but sit with her, encourage her to breathe and talk to her – use my words. Sigh. Then a wise friend and school therapist suggested I encourage her to “do mental math” in those moments.
Wait… what? Math?
When words fail… when the thinking brain leaves the station at warp speed to time travel to a destination unknown with worry, we can use math to arrive back in the present moment.
As something triggers worry and I see tears begin to swell in my daughter’s eyes, I smile and say “seven tables please.” The natural tendency to throw her head back in disgust, and exhale in disgruntlement is perfect. The head tilt changes the blood flow and the disgust is actually a deep breath and then she begins… 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 56…. Yesterday she said 58, which elicited a raised eyebrow from me…then giggles all around. …63…70…77…84…91. It doesn’t stop until we are all more focused on the numbers than the worry.
It feels like magic.
If math be the food of love, play on. Sorry Shakespeare.
How could I? West Virginia – this valley in particular – is responsible for the very best of me – my humility, my empathy and certainly my strength. In return, I have belittled her at times and worse used her to shoulder my own shame. For too long I undervalued us both.
It was 1989 when Marvin Bressler, my senior thesis advisor, said to me, “Well, you’ve done it.” I thought we were embarking on a congratulatory conversation about my defending my thesis. We were not. Before I could form the words, “thank you,” he continued, “You will forever live with one foot firmly planted in the world that shaped you in West Virginia and one foot stretching as far as it can to plant itself in the world at large. What you will make of that challenge is up to you.”
Before I had any idea of the depth of his insight, I could feel the tension he predicted in my future. It was compounded by the philosophy and the challenge made to every graduate of the call for “Princeton in the nation’s service.” The opportunity to learn together at Princeton was accompanied by a responsibility to serve others as we moved forward in our lives.
The die was cast – make something of your life, give back to others and forever contend with this notion of where you are from. And so it was for most of my adult life. Get up. Make a difference. Give back. Beat yourself up for not doing enough in steps two and three. Sleep. Repeat.
At a reunion 25 years later one of my college roommates, who spent her life’s work finding a cure for breast cancer, asked about my work. Self-deprecation bubbled up. My work? It paled in comparison to hers. Again it nagged at me that I wasn’t doing enough. I wasn’t daring enough. Looking back I was really thinking I wasn’t enough. I paled in comparison. I was only achieving any success because I was doing it in Wheeling WV. A refrain with which I was all too familiar. It is the story I had been telling myself since 1985. I only got into Princeton because I was from West Virginia.
Before breakfast ended, my roommate further mused, “You could do the work you are doing anywhere.” I rolled my shoulders forward to protect myself and braced for the expected judgement of West Virginia. Instead she said, “but anywhere else you would not have the opportunity to make the impact that you do where you are.” Just before she wiped her mouth, folded her napkin and hustled off to find the others, she quite simply may have changed the trajectory of my life and our school.
I never forgot where I came from.
By habit, I tempered any achievement, growth or recognition as being contingent on my being a necessary token from West Virginia. I let that feed the false perception that I wasn’t enough.
I am. I am more than enough. In the weeks that followed that reunion breakfast, I started asking questions. What does real learning truly look like? What more can I do to improve learning? What if we risked more? …failed more? …learned more? Doing this work in Wheeling WV was more than necessary – if not here, where? Wheeling Country Day School could be a private school with a public purpose. We could build on the strengths of our community and help others see any loss or problem as an opportunity.
We have grown leaps and bounds at WCDS since then. We offer an educational experience that I would hold up to any other in the world. I am proud of the work we do. I am proud of the place we do it. It is possible here – with the emphasis on here. When I tell colleagues around the country about our innovative and differentiated learning or share the model for deep learning in middle school, they cannot believe we do it here. They should come see for themselves.
If I could, I would tour Dr. Bressler around our 8 Park Road campus here in Wheeling WV, so he could see what I made of my having that one foot stretched out into the world and the other one proudly and firmly planted here in West Virginia, where I came from.
I began looking for them in earnest almost four years ago. You have to be mindful or you will discount their value. When you chance on your unexpected surprise, you have to drink it in and allow it to wash you in gratitude. It can change the trajectory of your day. When you make it a daily habit, you can alter your outlook on life.
Of course, some of them are more like a punch in the gut. You don’t miss those surprises because time stands still. It does that so you can catch your breath and accept it. Then you exhale gratitude that you have the strength to carry it forward.
Either way, you are changed for the better… unexpectedly.
…typically, it is a complimentary closing to a phone call, letter, or email. Lately, it has had so much more meaning for me. In saying as much, I am asking others to take care of themselves.
I am offering empathy for whatever they might be going through for all of us are fighting battles others cannot see. There is no better time to take care of ourselves.Take Care is also the title we chose for our WCDS middle school deep learning into identity. As adolescents ask …who am I? …how did I learn that? …with what bias do I see things? …what if? …what next? … it requires them to take care of themselves and of each other in a profound way. I am so proud to say they are doing that intense work gracefully.