Solving for Mrs. X (by Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

I was the kind of kid who inspired a love-hate relationship in teachers, as in, either they loved me or they hated me. I was lucky most of them loved me, and I loved most of them, because we all loved learning, and a shared love of learning tends to make people love each other. I know this is true because my matron of honor brought it up in her toast at my wedding, concluding, "And if you can't find them after the wedding—well, they're probably holed up in a library somewhere."

Only a couple of teachers ever hated me. My third-grade teacher came to resent my interruptions of her Revolutionary War lessons. (I was in a real Johnny Tremain phase at the time, from which I have never fully emerged, and she didn't know what a flintlock was.) And then there was my AP Calculus teacher in eleventh grade. She was my AP Calculus teacher for exactly three days before I decided I could do without both her and AP Calculus. I was right. Pre-cal for the A and  the same exact graduation credit. But she's had a lot of influence on who I am as a teacher, a critique partner, a reviewer, whatever. Whenever I'm giving feedback, I'm thinking of her.

Here's what happened. I had a bit of a reputation for being good at English. It was, you might say, My Thing, as I guess it is for many girls who grow up to be writers. This teacher (we'll call her Mrs. X., since it sounds sinister) had it out for me from the moment I walked in her door. I thought I was something since I'd won a few English awards? (I didn't. Thanks, adolescent low self-esteem.) Well, she would show me I wasn't.

As fate would have it, I came down with some sort of awful twenty-four hour January cold-and-flu combo the night before our first homework was due on the second day of class, but I felt well enough to go to school the next day. Well, not really, but I would never miss school if humanly possible. What. If. I. Missed. An. AP. Class. And. The. World. Came. To. An. End? I didn't get my homework done, though. I brought a note from my mom, who everyone knew was a mom you could trust not to help her kids get out of homework without cause. I promised to turn in the homework the next day. Mrs. X. didn't care. She harassed and bullied me throughout that class period.

I was done. With her. With AP Calculus. With math in general.

English was my thing. Not math. Not anymore. Not ever. It took me years to realize this was a turning point, a watershed moment in how I thought of myself as a student: I was bad at math. I hated math. Never before had I defined myself in that way. 

Here's the kicker: I'm not bad at math. I don't really hate it. I took the GRE twice in my forays into graduate school. The first time I scored a 730. Five years after that, I scored a 750. Out of 800. I don't remember the exact percentile, but it was in the high 90s. I was stunned. I'm not bad at math, I had to tell myself several times. I'm not. This proves it. In the English departments I've worked in, I've often been called on to interpret statistics, to help others average grades, to fill out whatever administrative paperwork required a lot of numbers. I enjoy that kind of thing. There's a certain satisfaction in finding that one right answer.

Mrs. X. taught me just how much influence one person can have on the way another person sees herself. And I have never wanted to be Mrs. X.

Whenever I walk into a classroom, or interact with a student, or respond to anyone's writing, Mrs. X. comes to mind. I never want to be the person who makes another person quit, who makes another person say, "I hate English. I hate writing. I'm not good at it." Whether I'm working with a student writer or another professional writer, Mrs. X. is my guide. 

For better or worse, she made me a better teacher, a better critique partner, and a better person.

I wonder if she'd be pleased.


  1. Wow. It's AMAZING the power our words have on each other...

  2. Ugh, I remember that SUSPICION that so many teachers had, that attitude that every student was just trying to put one over on them. Granted, many students were trying to get away with stuff, but not everyone all the time. And the unfounded accusations, and the snap judgments, were so poisonous.

    1. I'm sure many students were actually trying to pull one over on them. As a teacher, I know this, but I always try to give students the benefit of the doubt.

  3. OK, my typical multipart response to one of your posts.

    First: "What. If. I. Missed. An. AP. Class. And. The. World. Came. To. An. End?" OMG, yes. And if only I could instill a DROP of that kind of passion into my kids. Not the neurosis, just the passion.

    Second, I am totally a math atheist, too. I do not trust the magic that happens. Like if you add a negative number and a negative number, you get a positive number. Why? WHY? But yet, you're supposed to "get" this, and it's all supposed to be "true" and "factual" - in what universe? (Full disclosure here, I hate math. I am not bad at math -- well, yes, I am, but it's not fashionable anymore for a woman to say that -- but I don't like it. My brain doesn't work that way. I was terrified of math as in mind completely blank, incapable of functioning, for most of elementary school. It was sheer will that got me through school.

    Third, thank goodness that you had the presence of mind (and strength of self) to get the hell out of that class, and that your parents stood behind you and supported your decision. No one should have to be in that kind of situation, and no teacher should ever be allowed to speak that way to a student. I know it's hard, day after day, to deal with kids, and it must get disheartening after years of it, but there has to be another way of dealing with that suspicion (call the parent to confirm? keep the kid after school or during lunch?).

    Thanks for sharing. This is powerful stuff.

    1. Oops, I meant subtract two negatives. See, even in my outrage, I get it wrong. :/

    2. I hear you on the "unfashionable" thing. It's like we're all supposed to be STEM now, and if we're still into the arts, we've failed somehow. I get where they're coming from--but I really, genuinely always liked English better, and I was encouraged to pursue any area of study I wanted.

  4. It makes you realize how much power teachers -- and their words -- can have over students, especially in the K-12 years. By the time we reach college, we're strong enough (hopefully) to recognize bullshit when we hear it. I had a similar experience with a math teacher (Trig. Never made it to calc.). Maybe it made me realize English was my thing sooner, or maybe it closed doors for me at a young age.

    1. The sad part is that it's so hard to realize how much is nature/nurture in these situations.


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