Today, I just want to write about my personal experience with negative expectations. In Dr. Gerber’s class, we discussed low expectations, and I think my math experiences in high school were really affected by these expectations. By the time I got to college, and did Intro to Contemporary Math, and Statistics, I was fine again. In elementary school, I remember loving math games, like “math golf” and CSMP, which was some kind of experimental curriculum with magnet boards. I was in a gifted program in middle school, and really liked Algebra. I was always more of an English person, but I enjoyed Math and it wasn’t hard for me.
I don’t really remember ninth grade math very well. I remember my teacher was extremely boring and I fell asleep a lot. In tenth grade, I really started to do badly in Math. Maybe because I hadn’t learned ninth grade math very well, I found it difficult to build on foundations I didn’t have. I remember being able to follow along when my teacher was doing a problem, but then trying to do it by myself at night and having no idea where to start. I remember the trepidation and frustration about doing math homework and how I eventually just started putting down random answers. I started to fail every test.
Midway through the year, my teacher made me stay after class. She told me that my grade for the 9 weeks was 64.6, and that it rounded up to 65, a D, but that I should be getting an F. She told me that I didn’t “deserve to graduate from the Math and Science School,” that I would be the only one in the entire magnet school who would fail the SOLs, and that I was bringing their test scores down. I remember feeling like she had kicked the wind out of me. I actually never told anybody that she had said I didn’t deserve to graduate. Very soon after that, I told my parents I hated the math and science center, that math was interweaved into everything, and was ruining English for me, and that I wanted to drop out.
The school made me retake trigonometry in 11th grade, because it had something to do with SOLs. In regular Clover Hill, I just refused to do math. I skated by with a low C, because I’d already half-learned the curriculum from the year before. I read novels through every class. In twelfth grade, I didn’t take math, but took journalism, creative writing, AP Comp, AP Lit, Dual Enrollment Comp and band. By twelfth grade, I had decided that I was an English person. That teacher had such a profound impact on me and I never really realized it.
I don’t remember now if she had treated me differently than the other students—did she wait less time for me to respond, did she not praise my successes? I don’t really remember, but the way she criticized me as a person, (I didn’t deserve to graduate) rather than expressing concern about my failing grades and offering help, really affected my behavior. I dropped out of the Math and Science Center and basically went “on strike” in 11th grade against math.
Before RTR started this summer, I read a book called, Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose. He writes about his experiences in the vocational track in high school. I found the chapter, "I Just Wanna be Average" especially interesting. He writes
What Ken and so many others do is protect themselves from such suffocating madness by taking on with a vengeance the identity implied in the vocational track. Reject the confusion and frustration by openly defining yourself as the Common Joe. Champion the average. Rely on your own good sense. Fuck this bullshit. Bullshit, of course, is everything you--and the others--fear is beyond you: books, essays, tests, academic scrambling, complexity, scientific reasoning, philosophical inquiry.
The tragedy is that you have to twist the knife in your own gray matter to make this defense work. You'll have to shut down, have to reject intellectual stimuli or diffuse them with sarcasm, have to cultivate stupidity, have to convert boredom from a malady into a way of confronting the world. Keep your vocabulary simple, act stoned when you're not or act more stoned than you are, flaunt ignorance, materialize your dreams. It is a powerful and effective defense--it neutralizes the insult (29).
I remember showing off my Fs on math in 10th grade and claiming that I was too artistic and creative for math. I think that the “self-fulfilling prophecy” of low expectations—twisting the knife into your own gray matter—is just a self-defense mechanism. If you refuse to work, they can’t tell you that you’ve failed.
I have to remember this when I’m a teacher. I need to try to remember that lower achievers are just trying to survive, and the accumulated frustrations of school for a low achiever are devastating. Apathy is a self-defense mechanism. If I can create a classroom climate that is nonthreatening and judges their work and not them, perhaps I can help them out of their apathy. I certainly needed that climate in tenth grade math.