I sat across from a friend from high school and he confessed that learning mathematics had been beyond his capabilities. He spoke of how different his life might have been if only he had been able to grasp the meaning of all of the numbers and theorems in Algebra and Geometry. It hurt my heart to hear the pain in his voice and I told him that perhaps the fault was not all his. Sometimes a gifted teacher is able to reach even the students who struggle with concepts. I witnessed outstanding math teachers who literally changed the trajectory of certain students’ lives with patience and a knack for explaining things in meaningful ways.
I admitted to my friend that I had suffered for most of my life from a complex that came from feeling like a klutz when it came to athletics. I was the kid who was always chosen last for teams of any sort. I’d get so nervous whenever it was my turn to catch a ball or jump over a hurdle that I literally wished I might suddenly become invisible. My experience with sports taught me how horrible it feels to be viewed as being inept. It destroyed my self esteem in unimaginable ways.
I remember becoming more adult about my childhood sports phobia and volunteering to join a volleyball team made up of friends and neighbors. I was honest about my lack of great skills but the others assured me that we would be playing for fun and relaxation and that I should not worry about my lack of talent. They wanted me to be part of the group and I thought that maybe I might actually begin to learn how to respond when I had to field the ball. It sounded like a win-win situation for everyone.
In the very first game the opposing team saw my weaknesses and used them against my team. Whenever possible they sent the ball my way and after several misses on my part I became a nervous wreck. Before long a couple of the people on my team were yelling at me and asking out loud whose idea it had been to recruit me. It took every inch of my willpower to keep from dissolving into tears. I smiled and joked but inside I was dying. I once again felt like that child whose peers groaned whenever I was placed on their team. At the end of the game I announced that I would not be able to continue with the remainder of the schedule to the obvious relief of most of the people who had invited me to join them in having some fun.
It was not until I encountered a gifted teacher that I learned that the real reason for my lack of athletic acumen was the fact that nobody had ever bothered to show me how to perform the maneuvers required by the various sports. A professor of physical education with a PhD. in that field took me aside and asked if I had ever received any kind of instruction from anyone. My answer was that not only had I never been shown what to do, but I had also been ridiculed for my lack of natural talent.
He invited me to stay after class and get private tutoring. He showed me how to place my feet. Where to focus my eyes. When to move my arms. Before long I was dunking the basketball with almost one hundred percent precision. I caught and threw a football like a pro. I was able to make contact with my bat and send a baseball flying into the outfield. It was exhilarating to prove that there was not something innately wrong with me. My sense of self worth increased a hundred-fold.
We all too often expect individuals to learn things on their own. We tell our youngsters to work hard without providing them the tools that they need to do so. When they fail to perform to our standards instead of attempting to find out why it is so we make them feel so small that eventually they simply give up and believe that they are defective. We forget that we all learn at different rates just as babies reach milestones at different ages. There is no lockstep way of doing things that works for everyone.
My own failures with sports taught me to be patient with students who struggled with mathematics. I would spend hours analyzing their errors and determining what seemed to be giving them trouble. Like my professor I offered one on one tutoring sessions and did my best to make them feel comfortable with taking risks in the process of learning. I did not want anyone to feel that horrific sense of failure. I even understood that sometimes those who avoided doing the work were doing so out of fear of being ridiculed like I was.
There is a saying that all children can learn which I find to be a bit inadequate. The truth is that everyone can learn but not at the same rate. Sometimes we take a bit longer than what is deemed to be normal and often we demonstrate more talent with some things than with others. The important thing is for each of us to understand that good instruction and practice can help us to reach goals that we once thought impossible.
I’ll never be known as a gifted athlete but I at least regained my self esteem because of the wonderful man who saw my pain and did something to ease it. Instead of always testing and ranking our young our only goal should be to help them to learn in a way that works best for them and brings out their abilities. The greatest gift we might give them is the gift of confidence. We do that by providing them with the instruction and support that we all need.