The Drowning Gull 1 - Page 66

The Determinatrix

by Barbara Rady Kazdan

A teacher with an ax to grind affected my life long beyond childhood. It wasn’t just me, but I didn’t know that then.

Here she comes. She’s passing out test papers. She’s starting down my row. She’s getting close to my desk. I look down so I won’t see her scowl as she puts the paper on my desk, face up., displaying yet another big fat zero with red marks all over. I try not to cry.

I used to love school, but now I hate it. In second grade I was ahead of the other kids-- and my teacher, Mrs. Boggs, made me feel special; she’d have me read to the class while she graded papers. Half-way through the year, she skipped me right past 2nd semester into third grade. I thought that was exciting. I expected to shine, as I always had before.

Third grade stinks; my new teacher, Miss Blackheart, is mean. She makes me feel special, too, but in a bad way. I don’t know why she doesn’t like me. I’ve never met a mean grown-up before. Miss Blackheart looks like a man, with her square face, big shoulders and thick legs; she’s not soft and pretty like my mom or sweet and gentle like Mrs. Boggs. And she never smiles. She wears big black eyeglasses, clunky shoes and dark suits like my dad’s except with a skirt instead of pants. If I see her coming on the way to school, I cross the street.

I wish I could go back to second grade. After lunch, sometimes I sneak back to Mrs. Boggs’ classroom. I know I’m not supposed to because it makes Miss Blackheart furious; her face gets dark red, and it scares me.

Other times, I go home in the middle of the day. I make the long walk on busy city streets all by myself without my big sister. It’s weird being the only kid out there; at stoplights I wait until the grown-ups cross before I go. When I get home, Mom is surprised to see me, but she understands.

I’m doing fine in reading, spelling and all the other stuff. I used to be good at arithmetic, but not anymore. Miss Blackheart won't help me. My mom called her, but she still wouldn’t help, so I keep getting zeroes on arithmetic tests. I guess I’m not good at numbers.

At night, I have nightmares. A lot of nights I sleep in my parents’ bed, but sometimes they shout, "No! Go back to bed.” I don’t know why it’s okay on some nights but on other nights their door is locked, they get mad, and no matter how loud I cry they make me go back to my bed. On those nights my sister wakes up and she gets mad, too. My mom took me to a special doctor who helps kids who have bad dreams. He asked me if I have a window in my room, and I said yes. He said when the dreams wake me up I should go to the window to watch the wild geese fly. All I see from my window is the building across the alley. We didn’t return.

Finally my dad took time off from the office so he and mom could go to see the principal. They asked her to find out what I’d missed in arithmetic so they could help me catch up. She wouldn’t make my teacher tell them at first, but my dad kept at it until she did. I’d missed something called borrowing that you use when there’s a minus sign, so I couldn’t get any of the answers right. Mom and Dad showed me how to do it, so I get no more zeroes in arithmetic. But I still hate arithmetic and I still hate Miss Blackheart (I made up that name; I remember all of my elementary school teachers’ names except hers).

That was my last year in Chicago’s public schools. During the following year, we moved to our own house in the suburbs. Our house wasn’t even finished but we moved in anyway because school had started. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Dumar, loved kids – you could tell. She was all bubbly and sweet, with pretty yellow hair and blue eyes. She taught us how to play chess. I liked going to school, but I never liked arithmetic again.

Looking back, I know my third grade teacher used me to show that skipping grades doesn’t work. She singled me out to make her case. Me-- an earnest, trusting 8 year old. How could a third grade teacher be so cruel? It was child abuse. Long after it ended, as with all forms of abuse, the after-shocks rippled through my life.

It was no accident that she chose a girl to prey upon. One other student, Mark, had skipped into her class. She helped him, but not me. Much has been written about the disparity among genders when it comes to math. The feminist movement brought this issue to light: “High-performing females seem to be particularly vulnerable to the stereotype that girls just can't do math.” (Fennema & Sherman, 1978) Miss Blackheart knew she was feeding a widely held perception.

“That’s not the right answer, Paul,” the teacher said sternly on the first day of Advanced Algebra in my junior year of high school. Paul had volunteered to solve a problem on the board. “I know you won’t make that mistake again.”

I’d barely survived Algebra I. I thought, “If she thinks I won’t make the same mistake twice, I’m out of here.”

I went straight to the guidance counselor’s office to drop the class.

“But all of the Ivies require three years of math,” he protested, knowing I was on track to attend a top college. “I don’t care,” I insisted. Miss Blackheart had raised her ugly head again. Not only did my math phobia prompt my decision to avoid third year math, but it also made me avoid Chemistry and Physics. So when it came to the National Merit competition, my math score on the PSAT relegated me to the rank of Semi-Finalist, ineligible for the scholarships and entrée to elite schools that Finalists enjoyed. At college, that same score kept me out of the Liberal Arts Honors Program. I got the consolation prize: Honors English. I wonder how different my college experience might have been in the Honors Program (smaller classes; individual advising; a less structured learning environment).

When friends asked, “What major are you declaring?” I was stumped. Some of them were going into pre-Med. Others were looking at behavioral science majors. All of those required Statistics, a course title that conjured up formulas, variables and the like. I’d heard it was a killer. My aversion to math signaled “Danger Zone. Do Not Enter.” So English and History won by process of elimination. Thanks again, Miss Blackheart.

One woman out to prove a point at the expense of a happy little girl limited my choices in high school, college and beyond. In our house, Dad always managed the money. Mom had trouble balancing her checkbook. They were typical of the ideal families portrayed on “Father Knows Best,” and other popular TV shows. As a mother of girls I wanted to be a role model who dispelled stereotypes that held women back. But when my children needed help with math or science homework, they went to Daddy. I couldn’t help. The aftershocks of Miss Blackheart’s confidence-shaking persisted.

In my forties, I purged her from my system. As CEO of a non-profit I learned to develop and manage a multi-million dollar budget.

When Carla, our fresh-out-of-school staff accountant, gave me draft financials, I’d review them and suggest changes: “Let’s allocate 80% of the deputy director’s salary to program expenses, 20% to admin.” I might ask, “Couldn’t we spread this expense over two quarters?”

Then I’d present the financial statements to the board of directors. Did I worry that these business leaders might ask questions I couldn’t answer? Did I dread that part of the meeting? Nope, not at all. Rest in peace, Miss Blackheart!

The Drowning Gull