Thursday, August 2, 2012

Totally Monkey Free

In his spoken word poem "What Teachers Make" Taylor Mali says "I make kids work harder than they ever knew they could.  I make a C+ feel like a congressional medal of honor and an A- feel like a slap in the face.  'How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best?'"

I just finished my Calc II class.  And holy hell, was is it HARD. And there is a very good chance that I only got a C+ in the class.

And yes, it feels like a congressional medal of honor.

I took the class at the local community college.  Community College. Easy, right? Piece of cake.  Over achieving stoners go to community college, right? I mean, if you're only paying $70 a credit hour, how hard can it possibly be?

My teacher was Jim Smolko. He didn't get that memo.  He's taught at Lakeland for over 30 years, and mostly he's retired, but every summer he comes back and teaches Calculus and Analytic Geometry I&II.  Mr. Smolko is probably the best teacher I've ever had...ever.  (The only competition he has is Mr. Aiello, my first true love and the teacher who gave me math, like a present with a bow on it.)  Mr. Smolko treated us like future mathematicians and engineers.  He didn't coddle us and say "Well, you made some silly errors, but I can tell you get the drift."

He gave us a quiz every day and for quite some time I really hated him for it.  But we had the same couple of quizzes over and over and over.  By the end of the semester I KNEW that stuff.  Without hesitation.  Backwards, forwards and inside out.  Go ahead.  Ask me the reduction formula  for the hyperbolic cosine of theta squared.  Cuz I can crank that shit out in my sleep.  Holla!

Yikes.  What happened there?

He graded us HARD.  Dickwad hard.  I recently got back a 40 point, 6 part problem that I got a D on, even though I got the answer to every part correct.  I made a notation error SIX times and for each occurrence he took off three points.  I wrote the wrong symbol.  I did the right symbol, but I wrote the wrong one.  FAIL.

And yeah. I was PISSED.  Cross-my-arms-and-scowl-and-not-take-notes pissed. But I'll tell you what. I will NEVER make that mistake again. EVER.

You know how sloppy habits creep in and tend to cement into place?  Maybe you wrote a cover letter and wrote "thru" instead of "through".  That kind of thing.  Mr. Smolko doesn't let the sloppy habits slide.  He circles them in red pen, writes the correction, and then, depending on the severity of the sloppiness writes "-1" or "-2" or...ugh..."-3."  By the end of the 11 weeks, his students know right from wrong and are conditioned to do it the right way.

One of the things that's been frustrating me at Notre Dame is that I don't feel like teachers actually grade assignments.  It's rare that I get feed back and I've gotten all A's with one exception.  I'm not bragging, I'm saying: I don't think I've earned those grades, I've been given them.  I feel like A's are handed out like participation ribbons in little league.  Those A's don't feel good - yes, I worked for them and I put in lots of effort, but with no feedback and no constructive criticism, there was no growth.  There wasn't stretching for the next level.  I wasn't being pushed.  I don't know if it is the teachers are lazy, or they don't believe that I/we can do better.  The kids in my classes all seem fine with it.  I think the all think they're actually A students. Pffft.

Mr. Smolko wasn't lazy. And he wasn't there to collect a pay check and let mediocrity slide through.  He's the Mr. Miyagi of Lakeland's math department.  He pushed.  He demanded.  He held the bar so high and never once lowered it for us.  Because he believed that we could do it.  Because he was training mathematicians and engineers.

And I would rather earn a C+ in a class where an A really means something than get an A in a class where it means nothing.

I have complained and struggled the whole way through.  I've cursed the teacher, I've been a horrible mother and a cranky coworker and girlfriend.  I've broken promises and dropped the ball on commitments.  I've had way too many RockStars.  But I am so proud of myself for what I've accomplished.

So, so proud.

If you're one of the people I've been cranky at or short with, or I've said I'd do something and I didn't: I'm sorry.  I hope this helps you see the bigger picture. I hope I can make it up to you.

And Mr. Smolko: Thank you. I haven't felt this strong in a long, long time.

And yes. Two back to back posts about how hard life's been and how proud I am of myself.  Tomorrow I will wake up and not spend the entire day patting myself on the back and I'll be back with a more humble post soon.  As always, thanks for stopping by.

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