I step in to the classroom. I’ve been doing this now for most of this year but it still seems like everyone thinks I am just an educational assistant. As soon as I walk in, the teacher looks up and asks, “Oh, John, nice to see you. You're just in time. Can you help Michael with his math?”
My temper rises. I want to scream: “I am here for more than that!”
But I don't. Instead, I turn to Michael. “What's up Michael? Those problems getting you down again?”
He nods slowly, sadness creeps over his face as he looks around the room.
It hits me again that this, his struggle and shame over an inability with math, is right now Michael’s life-space. And it is a situation which spills over into other parts of his life. And of course the other kids in the class will whip him with this – just they all have their own short-comings by which they get hooked in this all-boy class. And, to complete the relentless circle, Michael’s personal and social anxiety is what gets into the cogs in his head and interferes with his math! Which came first – the chicken or the egg?
I first met Michael a few short weeks back. I never actually do math with him in the classroom anyway. It’s too public to be repeatedly demonstrating to the group his unremitting mathematical paralysis. I prefer to sit next to him, looking very serious (and mathematical), and I draw a circle on a page. A circle looks real enough to anyone who may be looking. But it’s a sort of “noughts and crosses” game which we play. He gets to add something to the circle – inside or outside or both – and I continue from there, trying to construe the image he has in his mind. He’s begun to get into the spirit of the “game”, for he will seemingly head off in an obvious direction ... aha, I think, this is to be a bicycle, here are the spokes of the wheel ... and then he will place some baffling object on the page, and look at me with a perfectly straight face, as if to say “Your move, John!” I am now the one at a disadvantage. It’s an aerial view of an umbrella? An orange divided into quarters ...
We are in our own very private capsule within the oblivious class. And, more to the point, we have lightened up. We will get to spend some time later on this afternoon when we have time to do real live maths problems (away from the madding crowd) but in the meantime Michael is reminded that his world can be OK.
It has taken some time.
I shall never forget the first day I introduced the “game”. My predecessors in this job had tended to be rather literal. “Help Michael with his math” meant just that. And it meant, in fact, continuing with the unpalatable mixture as before, confirming in front of everyone that Michael was, literally, outclassed.
So on that first day I sat down next to him, just as I did this morning, and drew my circle. He visibly drooped. This was a legitimate mathematical construct, and he frowned. The circle had dimensions, a radius and a circumference, and there were already formulae festering around it – for calculating areas, arcs, perpendiculars and other tedious math things. I passed the paper across to him and handed him my pencil. Permission for him to add his own stuff. He froze. I gestured to him to draw something. He fervently wished that he was somewhere else. “Go on,” I prompted in sign language. Hesitation, doubt, panic. But I persevered, and he relented.
He drew two smaller circles inside the first one. All very correct and mathematical. He passed me the pencil, wondering whether he might possibly have done the correct thing.
He had given me a wonderful opening. I drew extravagant eyebrows over each of his smaller circles and passed the pencil back to him. He was appalled. I thought he was going to wet himself. The math lesson had shifted into an altogether unexpected place. He looked at the paper, twisted his head this way and that, to make quite sure that he wasn’t reading more into this than was there. Looked up at me (dead pan) and back to the paper, and then quite suddenly our relationship moved decisively from the tortured minor key into a resounding major – beneath the “eyes” he drew a huge smile.
One thing I have learned from gardening is that one seldom tackles a refractory plant head-on, simply in terms of its unwanted behaviour. The wretched thing won’t flower or it sulks and looks unkempt or it simply shrivels up, and I am embarrassed that my neighbours will think me ignorant, inept or uncaring. I react by moving it out of sight or over-watering it or dosing it with some expensive cure-all from the nursery. And it gets worse. In the dead of night I have to pull it up, throw it ignominiously into an unmarked brown bag and trashbin it. And then feel angry and disappointed and guilty. But when you ask someone who knows, you generally get the advice you need: this plant likes a more alkaline soil; it likes at least a little sun; it doesn’t like too much water ... and so on. The advice is never to think that you can tackle the problem direct; it is to tackle the environment and the treatment you are giving the plant, and it will then do its own thing. And what more could one want?
So in Child and Youth Care. Forcing a kid who gets angry to stop being angry – or making a kid who can’t learn math to learn math is idiotic. We have to look at the environment in which we've got the kid; we must look at what we are feeding him and how much sunshine he’s getting and whether it’s not too windy or the soil is too acidic ... A youngster who is frightened cannot learn poetry; one who is feeling lost and excluded cannot display polite manners; one who feels inadequate cannot perform abstract thought gymnastics. The look in Michael’s eyes tells me everything I need to know. To help him with his math I have to start anywhere but with math.
What he has learned in a couple of weeks with our “noughts and crosses” game is that he’s fun to be with, that he has a capacity to be appreciated, that he is inherently creative and humorous – and that circles, together with whatever we choose to put inside them, can be meaningful and communicative.
When I meet him for a half and hour after tea each afternoon, we make good progress with his math. We can start off on the right footing. We can both be real and honest as we fathom the mysteries of fractions and factors and geometric shapes. We can rejoice when we “get” something, and we can heartily denounce the obtuseness of the subject when it “gets” us!
I have never learned why Michael was sad and unconfident. His only “presenting problem” was that he struggled with math. Today he is doing very satisfactorily with math and with most of his other subjects. (He doesn’t much like history, but then neither did I as a kid.) His flight path is a good few feet higher than it was when we first met. I am not a math teacher, but a Child and Youth Care worker, whose job is to get people like Michael back in their class and operating in at least an average kind of way.
At the end of this week I am passing on to someone else, in fact a small group of kids who are distressing the gym teacher.
I know nothing at all about gym either, but here goes.