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Ed. Magazine

A to B: Why I Got into Education

Illustration, pool of water

The Algebra of Buried Things

A_to_B_illustration_chafee.jpg"Do you see this? Do you see what I am looking at?" the young math teacher asks me. I follow her eyes to the upper part of an equation where she is gently rapping the knuckle of her engagement ring finger under X. She has the answer, is pretty sure I have it too, and gives me a smile of conspiratorial patience that is so lovely, it is hard to deny the tug. But my mind is traveling slowly down an escalator. I feel like I have night goggles on in broad daylight. I was what they would call back then a "difficult learner." What made this even more complicated was that it was determined that I was "gifted." For me, a costly combination.

Once you get labeled as gifted or talented, there is little you can do to unstitch it from your sleeve: they believe their own assessments, whatever the glaring evidence to the contrary. My teachers called me into meetings to praise my potential. They had approaches, they were armed with concern, they saw my reluctance, but somehow missed my confusion. I had more information than I could comfortably carry. The world of sequence that was presented to me -- the calm algebra of variables; the methods to reveal themes in novels so easily discernable to others eluded me.

Once you get off the express train of mathematical progression, whether at the station of fractions, or decimals, or the quiet towns of Sine and Cosine, there is no local to catch. I got off at algebra without my luggage and had no answer for this Y or this X, or any other problem that included a variable.

I knew I had to conquer algebra to go to college, to leave home.

And I was desperate to leave home, a tiny claustrophobic apartment on the Upper West Side with my therapist mother and schizophrenic brother who had dropped out of high school two years before, took the subway at 5 a.m. to bird watch in Queens, and received command hallucinations from taxi cabs. After spending seven straight weekends of family therapy at Yale-New Haven Hospital, I started sending away for college catalogues with a quiet fierceness.

When you live with crazy people, you dream of camouflage, of being an extra on a movie set, of living in as small a place as possible. When a wild, bold idea comes your way, you don't invite it in; it is already overcrowded in there. I was a Bminus/ C-plus student and could not comprehend my teachers' frustration. They thought, it seemed to me, that I was taunting them with my lack of urgency in mathematics, or history, or English. They wrote "extend this" and "apply this to theme" in red ballpoint pen, pressed hard in the margin. I don't suppose it ever occurred to my teachers that there was too much traffic in my mind, and I had no intention of adding to it.

I chose a quiet, Midwestern liberal arts college and majored in theatre, which one could take Pass/Fail, Credit/No Entry. I had never heard these terms before and grew to love them. My classmates found Oberlin boring, but it was a good place for me, tranquil and liberal, the intellectual equivalent of corduroy.

As a junior, I earned a place acting at The Drama Studio, a conservatory in Ealing, a working-class suburb of London. I was improbably cast in Chekov's Three Sisters to the horror of the British students. Colin, a director with the Royal Shakespeare Company, told us he was doing this for money.

"Claire," he began simply. Then a pause and he pointed to the faces looking at me in the rehearsal room. "Do you see these people here? They don't want you to f---ing go to Moscow. They want you to just stay here and just f---ing wait." I nodded. "But you don't want to f---ing wait." I shook my head. "You, my darling, simply want to f---ing go to Moscow! Right?"

Blinking, furious, stunned, I stood there trying to recover. He pointed his cigarette toward the rest of the cast shouting, "Use it! Use it!" meaning I should bring all those feelings to bear on my next lines. I realized, there and for the first time, that what I had buried -- rage, humor, presence of mind, fear -- were somehow useful, that characters in plays buried these things, too. And when they could no longer carry them, they came unfurled. How Colin knew I had such things inside me, I do not know. Only that maybe he wasn't doing it just for the money.

I realize this is an absurd story to surface when thinking about what brought me to education, a field known for its sincerity of purpose and professional approach to adulthood. Such displays as Colin's would, seen through any lens, embedded in any pedagogy, seem like abusive rant. But I came to teaching to continue the conversation of ideas with people who were so passionate about them, that they appear to list to one side, fix their eyeglasses with a Band-Aid, wear strange trousers, and exhibit a relationship to their subject that to an untrained eye is identical to the person talking things over with themselves on a subway. In short, I found my best teachers to be misfits; somewhat ill-equipped for life on the outside, but wonderful guides to the art of cutting a hole in the ice, baiting a hook, and lowering it into the dark unknown.

They were embarrassing, magnificent tutors for the rigors of selfhood. I would not have dared to bring as much of my strangeness or my buried love along with me, had I not had their example: giving long analogies that lost us all, in sweaters just a size too small; riffling through lost pages of a meticulously planned lesson; bridging the world of mistake, and the world where no mistake is worthless.

-- Claire Chafee, Ed.M.'09, wrote this piece in Nancy Sommer's Teachers as Writers class last spring. She moved back to the Bay Area with her partner and four-year-old daughter to continue her work as a playwright and teacher.

illustration by Jeff Hopkins

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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