In the tenth grade, if memory serves me, I took geometry. It might be better stated that geometry took me. It took me into the valley of despair, through the desert of lost hope, and dropped me, finally, by the shores of the Passing Sea, where I was rescued by the USS Extra Credit.
To say I was a poor student in geometry is akin to describing Hurricane Katrina as a mild thunderstorm. I could not do proofs. Proofs, for the uninitiated, or those suffering their own geometry white-out, are mathematical statements designed to prove something about angles or trapezoids, or paramecium. Whatever.
"Karen," Mrs. Taylor would demand, "Prove that the two triangles are equivalent."
"They look the same?" my timid response.
Mrs. Taylor rolled her eyes in a display of exasperation worthy of a teenager. "What are the measurements of the angles within the isosceles dehydration, equilibrium and congruent liver disease?" At least, that's what it sounded like to me.
I passed geometry by dint of valiant effort by Mrs. Taylor and me in after-school tutoring, tutoring by friends, tutoring at my home by college math students earning more than my teachers, and a final project in geometry that allowed us to create geometric figures with nails and embroidery thread. That was more like it – an art project.
I did learn something about geometry. I learned to walk across the lawn because the hypotenuse of a triangle is the shortest route. I learned that circles are tricky. They look so innocent, but it's hard to get a grip on measuring anything inside them. I learned that lines have no end. They run off the piece of notebook paper into infinity.
But the lessons I learned in geometry went beyond the subject material. I learned that I, a smart, sarcastic know-it-all could have difficulty learning something. What wasn't fitting into my brain? What glitch of mental processing made the whole subject so hard for me to understand? I had good attendance. I attacked my homework each evening under the watchful eyes of concerned parents. My younger brother was whizzing through geometry (a year ahead of me) with time to go skateboarding into the night. I was glued for hours to the kitchen table.
Geometry taught me great lessons that I relearned as a teacher. One day, I was stricken by my own feelings of exasperation toward a student in my English class. Why couldn't he understand what the passage (easy reading, by my estimation) was expressing? It was right there in plain English. No fancy vocabulary. No complicated sentence structure.
Suddenly, I was struck by a wave of remembrance: The clammy feeling of being called upon and not knowing the answer. The desperation of waiting for the teacher to move on and pick another victim. The desire to pass and get on with real life, a life far removed from a classroom. My life as a geometry student was my student's life in my English class.
I learned to be a better teacher because of geometry. So, I extended my hand in friendship to that struggling child, as one student to another. He passed English that year. We spent long hours beyond our required workday, going over material that other students had long since mastered.
Geometry taught me to be a more patient teacher. There is much we learn in school that will not be measured on the FCAT or a standardized test. School is the place where we learn lessons about who we are and how we perform.
In geometry, I learned humility.
Karen Aronowitz is president of the United Teachers of Dade, which represents 38,000 teachers and school support personnel in the Miami-Dade County Public School system.