In his latest piece, Ryan Björklund describes how one dedicated community college instructor would stop at nothing to teach her pupils how to count.
Ms. (forever, probably) Debbie Heinrichs got her master’s degree in mathematics from Columbia. Not the one in New York. The one in Missouri. Mizzou. Growing up, Debbie was often viewed by her peers as being powerless, unable to adapt to life’s adversities. Debbie felt dejected for never having lived up to her parents’ high expectations. Her parents divorced when she was in high school. Neither one of them spoke to her anymore. She had a series of loser boyfriends, all of whom proposed marriage to her prematurely. They always backed out on her, though. It wasn’t them; it was her. During grad school, Debbie had enjoyed being paid attention to while working as a TA. She had finally discovered a platform where she had control. She was the authority.
She taught at the city’s community college, secretly relating to the perennial underachievers and lifelong losers enrolled there. This was her fifth year in the math department. None of the other instructors cared for her. The only community college staff that talked to her were the security guards (nearly all of whom were alumni with degrees in criminal justice).
“Welcome to Vexner Community College. For many of you, this is your very first day of what is considered ‘higher learning’. Welcome, my name is Ms. Heinrichs, I’ve been doing this for… a while. I look forward to teaching you skills for life. This class is called Arithmetic 100, or ‘Intro to Mathematics’. You know, counting numbers. Have any of you ever counted on your fingers before? Show of hands. Okay, so most of you. See what I just did there? Counting? We’ll be doing some of that. Your placement tests are the only thing that could’ve put you in this class, so for those who haven’t counted on your fingers, here is where you’ll learn about that.
“Let me take attendance before we go over some class rules… ”
As destiny would have it, all 13 students were right where they belonged. She knew that their success would be measured in baby steps, but she wasn’t here to baby them. She was almost 32 years old, had no offspring of her own, and was not inclined to waste her waning maternal spirit on these mush-brains. She’d been engaged 3 times. Married none times. She was 0/3 on successful legal unions.
After such a long and lonely summer, she was eager to go over the syllabus and classroom rules. Anxious to feel in charge of her life again, as the past summer had seemed longer and lonelier than all of the summers preceding it. A lot of ice cream in bed. A lot of re-runs of Golden Girls. A lot of crying.
“OK! The most important class rules are related to honesty. As you know, honesty is the best policy. In this class, you will not use a calculator. It is considered academic dishonesty. Do you know what that means? It means you’re moving ahead of the coursework. It also means you are not being honest. Honest with me, and–more importantly–honest with yourselves. The only way to succeed in my classroom is to be honest with yourself. That means being honest about your ability level.
“If any of you know one another from high school, it isn’t important in this classroom. High school is dead, and nobody from there matters anymore. M’kay? Close the yearbooks and move on. You all have to make good grades here, so you don’t end up toothless and crazy, living on the streets.” She was smiling. Nobody else was. This was a very real possibility for at least 12 of them. Some students even began to look down, and then back up again, seemingly inspired by her statement. Their eyes widened. Some showed her the roofs of their mouths to signify their understanding of such an epiphany.
“Do any of you know what digits are? Your fingers. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9, and ZERO. Everyone make an O-shape with your hands. Okay. Show me those O’s. That is also a digit.” Students looked down at their hands, still afraid of ending up as toothless vagrants.
“Okay, wait a minute. Do any of you know what a natural number is?” Blank stares.
“Okay. Jesus Christ…um, we’ll call it a ‘counting number.’ They are also digits. Remember? Everyone show me your O-shapes so I know you remember.”
She looked up at 13 pairs of hands making O-shapes. All 26 hands were engaged in learning. This was really moving along. Unwed Debbie was on a roll.
“Good. Now let’s go over something called place value. I’m going to write something on the board, and then you guys tell me what’s missing.”
“Just in case you were wondering, that is NOT my phone number, hehehe…”
More blank stares. Male students exchanged shrugs. Some shook their heads, as if to say: “No way.”
Noticing this, Ms. Debbie Heinrichs, underachiever, began to get upset. Disapproval from her parents, her fiancées, and now her students? She began to wonder if she should teach at an online for-profit college. Or just kill herself.
“Okay? So what’s missing here?” she asked the class, perhaps rhetorically.
One student asked: “A decimal?”
“Wrong. Commas! Whole numbers in here, kids. You’re not being honest. We’ll let this slide, as a warning. I’m sure none of you know how decimals work yet. If you did, you wouldn’t be assigned to this class. Many of you that have worked in fast food, or as clerks in gas stations, may have had very brief exposure to decimals. But since none of you seem to be there yet, we won’t be touching on decimals for a while. Not until you can at least match the mathematic proficiency of a McDonald’s cash register.”
Poor Debbie Heinrichs’ face began to redden. She didn’t like being sassed. This was her show, not theirs. She knew she was sexy, brilliant, interesting, and deserving of love. She wasn’t going to stand for such insolence.
“Once you’ve proven to me that you’re all McDonald’s cash registers, we’ll discuss inequalities. Do any of you know what inequalities are? Those of you that take the 61D bus route might be familiar with inequalities.”
“Okay. Let me explain this to you as best as I can.”
“A is to the (…) LEFT of B.
“A… LEFT B.
“Ok, so let’s pretend your daddy is A and your mommy is B. Your daddy (A) thinks that he is GREATER than your mommy (B), so he LEFT her.
“See the arrow? Daddy is walking RIGHT passed mommy. Walks RIGHT out the door. But he LEFT her. See what I mean?”
She drew lines to emphasize the values of the relationship. She also drew a door, and a direction of travel.
One youngster piped up: “What about the rest of us? Where are my sisters? We all live with my moms.”
Ms.Heinrich began to enjoy the class participation. She couldn’t wait to set the next hapless fool up for a wicked burn, so she could thereafter comfort them and show them the light. The joys of teaching!
“You are a variable. Your siblings could be exponents? Does any of this ring a bell?”
13 puzzled souls looked back at her, but only 1/13, or 7.69%, of these souls would ever grow enough to attain self-worth.
“Of course it doesn’t. Not yet. Let’s just come back to that later. Because you know what? Life is just full of inequalities.”