A time I helped someone

My English language teaching background goes back to 50 minute lessons at a private language school, and still to this day I find it easier to plan and implement two 45 minute classes than one longer 90 minute class. As the lessons I teach at my university are all 90 minutes long, this means I tend to plan for two different kinds of activities, one for the first 45 minutes and the other for the second 45 minutes.

As I’m teaching ESP (English for Specific Purposes), the activities that come in the last half of my classes are generally specialty-oriented, whether around medical, nursing, or pharmaceutical themes. For the first half of my lessons I usually have students engage in conversation-themed activities. I started years ago by announcing a conversation topic at the beginning of the lesson then having students write about what they talked about for homework, but several student comments on my courses said they didn’t feel they were able to spontaneously come up with something to say about a topic announced on the spot during class, and so I’ve since reversed the order of homework and conversation so students are asked to write 100 words for homework about the topic we’ll be using in class for the coming week’s conversation time.

These used to be rather inane topics, at least in my opinion, such as animals, sports, and movies, and it was OK as an activity, but I didn’t feel particularly interested in or engaged with what my students were writing and talking about. Then I was introduced to positive psychology, perhaps through Tim Murphey, and I started thinking about how I could transform these discussion activities into something that helped my students be more conscious of their lives, their roles in the world, and their personal stories. This led me to try to add some elements of positive psychology to the topics I had my students write about.

I wish I could remember all of the sources I’ve drawn on from over the years, but the shift has been more gradual than sudden, and by now I’ve used some of these topics for years, and so their source is obscured in my memory. One important realization I’ve had is that at least some of my students are as interested in hearing my stories as they are those of their classmates, and so I’ve taken to giving my answer to each of these writing prompts orally in class. However, no one’s listening is perfect, and it’s also good to provide the same message across multiple modes of communication, and so I’ve taken to writing some of my answers to these prompts down here. My original intention was to have a link to a written story for every one of my prompts before the end of the semester three or four years ago, but as with many good intentions, life has made it difficult to meet those goals. So instead I’ve meted out my writing of these in fits and starts. I think I’m up to about six by now. I usually write them normally then create a simplified version for students.

So, without further ado, here is the story of the time I helped someone that I usually share with my students in class in response to the prompt:

Write about a time you helped someone. What did you do? How did you feel about it?

In the middle of junior high school I moved from Maryland to Kansas, and one result of that move was that I was put two grade levels back in Math. That is, I had been studying one grade level ahead of most of my peers and ended up instead one grade level behind most of my peers. While this made math classswork exceedingly easy for me (I had already done what we were studying twice over and had a pretty good grasp of what that math served as a foundation for going forward), it also meant that I stood out in my classes. It didn’t really matter how many algebra problems you assigned for homework; it took me a tenth of the time to finish them that it took my classmates. It wasn’t really fair, either; they were seeing the ideas and concepts for the first time. I was basically spinning my well-worn arithmetic wheels when working through them.

That I was behind where I likely should have been became an issue in high school, because my teachers noticed I didn’t really belong where I was and recommended me for the gifted program. When that recommendation came through, the counselor wanted to know why I was behind in math. I explained that back in junior high school, when I moved to Kansas, I was told what math class to take. At the time I tried to explain that I didn’t think they put me in the right level of class, and a testy administrator told me that was where kids my age and grade level belonged. In a new school in a new state, I wasn’t really in a position of authority to question that determination of my place in the school curriculum, and so I went with it.

The response I got was that I was actually a year behind and needed to finish high school a year ahead, more if possible, and so I ended up doubling up on math classes in my second year of high school, taking Algebra and Geometry, normally taken in separate years, at the same time.

I enjoyed math, and so didn’t mind at all. It was fun to work through the problems, and getting the work done still didn’t take up too much of my time. My experience of Algebra is a different story for a different time. This story centers around my Geometry class, which was particularly fascinating for me because the equations translated directly into shapes and vice versa, and so I could visualize the problems as I worked through them.

As usual, I would normally finish the homework during class and not need to worry too much about taking extra work home. Our teacher would also give us time to study and prepare for tests in class, which I didn’t really need, because I had an almost intuitive level of understanding of the problems.

In the same class was a senior who (I at least thought) was repeating his last year at school, so a fifth year high school student. He fell into the category of cool kids in my estimation. He drove an old sports car, wore leather jackets, and looked like he would know his way around in a brawl. These impressions were likely all incorrect, but they led me to give him a wide berth in class, and we interacted only in passing throughout most of the semester. Thinking back on it, he was perhaps as intimidated of me as I was of him, as what he found the most difficult to understand in class I was able to do with barely any effort, generally intuitively. If I forgot a formula during a test, I understood how that formula had been derived, and could reproduce it through manipulation of equations that I did remember. For me it was less of a challenge and more of a game. It seemed he had only limited understanding of the principles underlying the equations, and remembering which to use when was a constant struggle for him throughout the class. While I was disappointed if my test scores weren’t a perfect 100%, he barely passed or barely failed the tests throughout the semester. I was the smart ass who corrected the teacher when she made a mistake working through sample problems on the board, which I think she had mixed feelings about at best.

He finally broke the barrier of silence one tense class the last month of the term. Our teacher had explained what was going to be on the final test and had said we had the next class or two to study for it. I was wondering what I was going to do with the time. She didn’t like it when I read books in class, but at the same time going over what I already more or less knew as well as I was going to know it felt to me like a waste of time.

The senior student had gone up to the front of the class like the rest of us to get his score in the class and to find out what he needed on the final to pass. I think I needed something like a 40% to pass, and perhaps a 60% to get an A in the class. I wish I was paying attention to my surroundings when he went up to hear what his grades were, but attentiveness to those around me has never been my strong suit.

I was snapped out of my daydream by a nudge on my shoulder and a whisper, “Hey, you. You’re smart. Help me pass this test.”

This was supposed to be silent study time, so I looked up from my doodles on my paper, back at him, then up to the front of the room. The teacher was looking in our direction and seemed a bit upset, but gave a nod, which I took as permission to turn around and respond.

The details of the actual conversation aren’t important, but what is important is his story. He was working part-time at a local garage, doing maintenance on cars, and the head of the shop told him they had a full-time job for him, but he needed to graduate from high school first. If he didn’t, then he would lose his part-time job and be out of luck. That was the only reason he was still in school. The one thing he lacked to graduate was the math credit for this geometry class, and our teacher had heard his hard luck story and said if he passed the final test, he could pass the class.

This took a couple backs and forths, a few likely rude questions on my part, but eventually the story clarified before me, and I said something like, “You mean, you need to get 60% or higher on this test to pass this class?” and he replied, “That’s right.” I think I repeated the question, just to be sure; the gears were turning in my mind, thinking about just how much information you could not know and still pass the test. Eventually I said, “OK. I’ll try to help you pass the test.”

The key to the whole exercise was deciding what exactly was required to get an answer on the test right. Not the underlying principles; he didn’t have the patience for those. My explanations were more like diagnosing a car’s braking system that was acting up. Something like, “If it’s a circle, then use this equation. If it’s a square, then use this one.”

At one point we got to Pythagoras’ theorem, and I said, if it’s a triangle, use this. Remember this. He replied, “All I have to do is use this when I see a triangle? That will get me to pass the test?” and I answered, “If you use this for all of the triangles, you should be able to get at least 60%.” We worked through the the problems he didn’t understand from our different past tests, and I think that was the most engaged either of us were in the class since the start of the semester.

The whole time I think our teacher was watching us, with an uncomfortable expression on her face.

The day of the final test came and went, and the last class of the semester I got my test results back, somewhere in the 90% range, although I don’t remember the exact number.

The student I had been helping, who had become downright friendly, came back from the front of the room with his test and hit me on the shoulder happily. It hurt. He showed me his test: 72%. We both smiled at each other. That was the highest grade he had gotten on any of the tests that semester. I wondered what he could have gotten if we had been working together for the whole semester, rather than just the last week of term.

He told me the day of his graduation to stop by his garage and he would change my oil for free. I think I may have even eventually taken him up on that offer.

Usually my students ask me after the story what became of him, and I wish I knew. We moved in different orbits; he was very much my senior, and left school after that semester. I went on to university and then moved to Japan in 2000. Wherever he is, I hope he’s found his happiness, and that geometry hasn’t caused him any more stress in his life.

Thinking back on it, this was probably my first taste of the appeal teaching can have; helping someone to understand something they hadn’t previously known. The joy of trying to figure out how someone else understands something, and what strategies may help them to understand it better. I’ve certainly run with it. I hope the young man I helped ran with his opportunities as well.