My early encounters with high school math were horrible. Try as I could, I couldn’t make sense of it. Everything seemed strangely different from anything we had learned in grade school. Early in the course, our teacher asked six of us to go to the blackboard and solve problems from the book. Mine seemed simple enough: a “minus 3” on top with a “plus 7” at the bottom. I was supposed to work out the result.
My five other classmates finished their problems quickly and sat down. I was still staring at mine. My mind raced: “How could a smaller number be on top? And with a minus sign at that!” After what seemed like forever, the teacher ended my misery by ordering me to sit down. As I went past her to go back to my seat, she muttered under her breath, “Idiot!”
I barely passed my math subjects in high school. My teacher’s softly spoken label rang loudly in my inner ear the whole time.
My performance in most other subjects was not any better. I was always interested in the topics, but I loved talking to my seatmates. My report card always declared, “Too talkative.” My physics teacher once reached his limit and threw a blackboard eraser at me. He missed, fortunately.
In contrast, my English teacher thought my talkativeness a good thing and made me recite often. He appreciated my essays and asked me to write for the school paper. Despite my youthful laziness, I surprised myself by writing a couple of pieces.
It was difficult getting recommendations for university. My grades were hardly impressive. Fortunately, my English teacher gave me a good one, so there I was, a freshman at De La Salle in 1979.
Freshman algebra at De La Salle was tough. My classmates, especially those from Chinese schools, breezed through the quizzes while I couldn’t solve an equation had my life depended on it. Defying my high school insecurities, I got the simplest algebra book from the library and worked through as many of the problems as I could. I managed to pass by the skin of my teeth.
I enjoyed sociology. I always read the textbook two chapters in advance. I still always talked in class, but I somehow learned to raise my hand first. My American teacher helped me realize why I was so talkative in high school — I had a point of view and wanted to be heard! She called me to her office one day and offered me a teaching scholarship. If I maintained decent grades and served as a teaching assistant, I could teach after graduation to pay back the scholarship. I accepted and decided to major in behavioral sciences, focusing on sociology and anthropology.
I was assigned to assist my former statistics teacher. She was encouraging, and I had gotten a good grade under her. As my supervisor-mentor, she asked me to check quizzes and to lecture on some topics. I grew to love statistics under her gentle guidance, eventually applying for a master’s degree in statistics at UP Diliman and graduating in 1989.
I considered sticking my statistics diploma in my algebra teacher’s face, but my better judgment stopped me. I told myself that she hadn’t really meant to be unkind. She just didn’t know any better.
I did track down my retired English teacher and treated him to a nice lunch. I thanked him for recommending me to De La Salle. He smiled and whispered in his aging voice, “I always knew you could do it.”
I e-mailed my sociology teacher in the US and thanked her for believing in me and for opening my path to teaching. She replied, “It was good to hear from you. I appreciate being remembered (even after all these years) as someone who helped you on the way to becoming a teacher.”
And of course, I always tell the story of my statistics teacher, even in her presence, and how she helped me realize that I wasn’t an “idiot” in math at all, and that I could learn any subject I put my mind to.
I have been teaching for 34 years at De La Salle now. Naughty friends from my younger days like to tease me by asking how De La Salle could have gone so low in its faculty hiring standards. As for me, I will teach until my last productive day to honor the teachers who worked a miracle in my life and to remind my students what they can do if they apply themselves.
Thank your good teachers.
Happy Teachers’ Day!
Dr. Benito Teehankee is a full professor at the Management and Organization Department of De La Salle University.