02 February 2011


This is Becky.

She is just a month shy of fourteen years old, and she is in the eighth grade.  Her real name is Rebecca Claire.  Rebecca, because I think that's the most beautiful girl's name on the face of the earth, and Claire for my husband's mother.  But everyone has called her Becky from day one.

Becky's strong suit is determination.  When she decides she is going to learn something, she bites into it like a fierce dog, shakes it, and refuses to let go until she's an expert.  For this reason, Becky is an advanced brown belt in karate, probably just a few months away from earning her black belt, and she is also an authority on all things having to do with ancient Egypt.  She can read and write hieroglyphics.  I once sat with her while she memorized a Shakespearean sonnet in less than an hour.  She's really quite talented and driven, and she does very well in school.  Once she sets her mind to it, she can accomplish anything she wants.  Unfortunately, one thing Becky wants to be good at is math, and math is still hard for her.  (She comes by this honestly.  I have always been terrible at math.)

Back when I was Becky's age, when I went to the public middle school (which we called "junior high"), everyone in school was put into a class according to intellectual ability.  In seventh grade, the 20 or so smartest kids were put into a group called 7-1.  The next group was 7-2, then 7-3, and so on, all the way down to 7-7.  You knew how smart you were by which class you were put into.  We walked as seven individual packs through the halls, the nerdy kids in 7-1 and 7-2 trying to avoid being beaten up by the jocks in 7-6 and 7-7. I don't know who decided which kids went into which group, or how the determinations were made.  It was just accepted practice.  We were typecast at an early age as either smart, or not.  There was no movement between groups.  You did  not move up from 7-5 into 8-1.

Now, things are a little more humane and flexible.  Becky is in a lot of top classes at her middle school, but, to her great distress, she has been assigned to "Core Math."  The core class is a class for children who need to go at a slightly slower pace than the others, because it takes them a little longer to absorb the material.  While the mainstream math class is forging ahead into algebra, the core kids are still learning what integers and variables are, and they are still working on basic arithmetic skills, like multiplying and dividing fractions.

Becky didn't care that she was in the Core Math class, or at least she never mentioned it, until some kid at school told her she was in "Sped Math."

Becky told us she needed to get out of the "sped" class because she was not stupid.  I tried to explain to her that it had nothing to do with being stupid, but more to do with the speed at which the materials were covered.  This did not make her happy.  "Are you saying I'm slow?" she demanded.

"I...um...no..." I stammered.

"I'm going to ask to be put into the mainstream math class in ninth grade," she said, and she meant it.

Now, things are better for Becky and her peers than they were for us, but it's still not that easy to move from core to mainstream.  You need to master the material thoroughly and demonstrate that you can handle the more challenging pace.  I told Becky that her goal was admirable, but she would need to show the teachers that the core class was not challenging her sufficiently.  She would have to excel in the core class.  She was not currently excelling; she was maintaining a B+ average.  There was no hope of promotion, I told her, unless she was getting at least an A.  Then, we could go into a planning meeting and demand to be put into the mainstream class in high school.  But without that A, we had no ammunition, and there was no chance they'd take us seriously.

Becky started getting up earlier in the mornings and going to meet the math teacher before school.  She sat for hours alone at her desk in her room, poring over her math homework.  She drilled herself.  She got her older sister and her older sister's friends to drill her.  She fell asleep with the math book covering her face.  She turned in perfect homework day after day.  She did all the extra credit problems.  She was knocking herself out.  Although, after years of watching how Becky operated, I knew her well, I was still worried she'd be disappointed.

We don't get paper report cards anymore.  Now, the parents get an e-mail from the school district announcing that grades will be available on the school website at a certain time on a certain date.  Midwinter reports from the middle school came out on January 31 of this year, and I logged in and took a peek.  Becky watched over my shoulder as I typed in her name and password.

I was pleased - but not surprised - to see that she had gotten an A in everything.

Except math.

In math, she had gotten an A+.

I said, "Becky, I think you are headed for mainstream math in high school."

She shrieked and gave me a high-five.  

I don't think mainstream math is going to be this young woman's last stop.  From what I know of her and where she's been, I think it's reasonable to expect that great things await her where she's going.  I can't wait to see what she decides to accomplish next.



A Vintage Vine said...

Yeah Becky! One of my sons is dyslexic..It can be a struggle sometimes for these young kids! He like Becky has overcome alot....Good luck to Becky in all she does! Give her a high 5 from me...tell her it is from some lady somewhere who read her story and thinks she is GREAT!

Tavis Dockwiller said...

Becky has done what I could not. I lacked that drive to kill the beast regardless of the effort in junior high... I remember in 5th and 6th grade, I briefly lost my interest in school. I'd been tops in stuff and suddenly I was having trouble spelling cat. When we all moved up into 7th grade, my assignment came: 7-4. My mother who largely respected teacher decisions having been a teacher herself was not happy. She went and appealed. She noted that I had always traveled with the 'smart' kids. She noted that my brother had a similar setback at exactly my age. (His tempered by a very wise nun who told my mom not to worry. This interest in the social over school was normal and Mark would pop on back to his academic prowess soon. (Dear me- he popped with something like 20 more years of formal education- MD/PhD, Top Resident and Fellow in that time. He's still smart and learning and thank god has stopped holding me down to pretend to spit on me.) Anyway, this was all to no avail. My mom was ASSURED that the numbers after the 7 had nothing to do with anyone's mental ability. Funny because suddenly instead of being with all the kids I'd been with in my reading and math, I was with other kids in 7-4. Now, I knew lots of these kids. We'd gone through school from kindergarten, and I liked some of them and they became friends, but it wasn't easy suddenly feeling dumb and being caught between worlds. Not cool enough to be smart or dumb. Blah. Anyway, through the force of two teachers in 9th grade I was put back into the honor track (EXCEPT for math which I did not have the inherent skills nor the Becky-will to conquer.) But my self-confidence was low. When my savior teachers told me two weeks into my freshman year they were marching down to the office to have me placed in honors this and that, I balked- "oh, I can't do it" and in fact, I had at least one honors teacher that gave me hell because I arrived to her class after the start of the semester and I was the girl trying to be honors. But I've done ok and finally figured out that it takes all kinds of smarts and interests to make a good society. And one can fall in love with a human calculator and have most of life's math challenges solved by said calculator in the car between stops. Finally sometimes one's world is rocked by stuff that has nothing to do with math or reading or top anything and can't be solved by brains alone and you just have to lean on your friends as you heal. (sweeping music)
p.s. In this time of great transition, I misplaced a wonderful friend, Jennie Arlin, who remained in those 7-1's and 8-1's and then went on to a mystery school of which I was both amazed and jealous- fancy learning, fancy NYC address, fancy friends... of course, I didn't really understand her trials of childhood and coming of age but I did spent time during my adult life wondering about her and looking for her. Thank you facebook.

ami said...

9-1 or bust!