Stuck In The Middle

In high school I took a geometry class.  A warning for anyone thinking about taking geometry in high school:  don’t.

I was excited to be taking it because for the first time in my high school ‘career’ I  had  nailed a 4.0 grade in algebra the year before.  I thought I must be a mathematical genius.  I loved math.  Algebra was like puzzle solving.  And I learned that I enjoyed that process.  Solving and resolving.  Loved it.

Within days of starting the geometry class….problems became evident.  This class ended up quite literally sucking all of the joy of living right out of me.  And by the questions being asked by others, out of them as well.  I dreaded walking in to that classroom.

The day I stopped asking questions was the day the teacher said “any questions?”  and one of us said “I don’t understand it”.  Her response was “that’s not a question”.   And she refused to go on.  Unless someone asked a question.  I wracked my brain for something to ask.  But I couldn’t understand it enough to even form a question.  Now, sometoomany years later I think of one question that I could have asked:   “could you please explain it again?”   But I don’t know if that would have passed muster either.

It wasn’t too long into the semester when our teacher surprised us one day as we filed in and sat down.   She had us all stand back up.  She pointed out seats along her left side and had students she named sit over there.  Then she pointed out seats to her right and named students to sit over there.  I was still standing.  The middle row, from front of the class to the back of the class, the dividing row, remained empty.  She sat me and about four other students in the remaining empty row.   I sat in the middle of the middle row.

She didn’t explain anything about why she moved us.  And she went about her lessons.

Me:  oblivious.

Others:  outraged.

Someone at one point said “did you just divide us into the smart side and the stupid side?”   I looked around.  People did not look happy.   I was stunned.  One, that the student had asked that.  Two, that that is exactly what it appeared to be once it was pointed out.

The teacher smiled.  She said that’s not what she would call it but if that’s what we wanted to call it, we could.   She did tell us we could do better and move ‘up’ or if we struggled we could be moved to one of the other groups.

She had divided us into different ‘sections’ because of the obvious struggles the class was experiencing.  She assigned homework according to the group you were in.  I wasn’t smart enough to be in the smart group.  I wasn’t dumb enough to be in the dumb group.

I was stuck in the middle.

I was just okay.

Nothing stellar.  Nothing dull.  I was just…there.

I learned to not say “I don’t understand”.   I learned that people do rate you on certain performances that really don’t show the whole you or the able you or the best of you.  Even though I didn’t fully comprehend this, it was evident in the rest of my time with that teacher.

In fact…I truly learned very little then.  I have thought about this often and wondered if it had anything to do with my high school average-ness.

I never asked questions in that class.  I never fully understood what geometry was.  I still don’t.  I don’t care to know.  I don’t care to find out.   I literally sweated out the rest of that semester in that class.  I did my homework.  I did ‘okay’.  I never strived to do better, because I was happy to not be ‘dumb’ and too naive to think I was capable of doing better and being ‘smart’.

I allowed myself to remain in the middle.

Because I thought it was good enough.

I did not want to appear stupid in that class.  So I did my work.  I did not know enough to ask better questions so I could ‘move up’.   And I was forever impressed by those who were aware enough to know what was going on.  I admired that student, and the others along my education path, who weren’t afraid to ask questions.   And didn’t allow people to put them in the middle.

I sat in that middle row for the entire semester.

I didn’t learn until much later that I could fluctuate in and out of the middle depending on my efforts and abilities.

Sometimes I still find myself sitting in that middle seat.

At least I realize now that it’s up to me to remain sitting there.

Or get up and move.







33 thoughts on “Stuck In The Middle

      • Why are you feeling sorry for her? Cleary, in a horrible way, she pointed out all the students who were struggling with the concepts. Under my charge, I would have taken some action.


        • I like reading how you take action with your students Mitch. Your students are very lucky. Actually, years later I heard a story, not about this specific teacher. But about another teacher who would have been in the same age group. Women were being given an “opportunity” to receive free college if they became teachers because of the shortage of teachers. I always wondered if that was how she became a teacher. She needed/wanted an education and had no way to get it without help???? I don’t know….I do remember feeling horrible in that class. But as I get older….I feel bad for her.


  1. wow, a powerfully awful way to learn this lesson. not a natural born teacher to say the least.i’m glad you survived to tell the tale.

    as a side note: I have discovered in the last couple of years that there are ‘algebra’ people and ‘geometry’ people and one comes easier to some than the other. it is not always easy to master both. I, like you, am an algebra person. look up dyscalculia. I discovered this when wondering why I’ve always struggled with directions and spatial math skills. very interesting.


  2. I am an English person, MBC, eager for the concepts of plot and language and not so much numbers and shapes. That’s a whole other track. But it puts me all-in for your revelations about effort and that middle level.


    • I was excited about doing so well in algebra and then moving up a level. NOt understanding of course, that it wasn’t just more algebra like. I have long accepted that I am clueless in many areas of life. 😉


  3. Whoa. I couldn’t comment right away because I had to tamp down my anger first. At the so-called “teacher,” who must have really been a sociopath disguised as an educator. Inexcusable, the way she tried to “categorize” students. No student/human can be or should be placed in a box as average or above/below average. As a teacher myself, I am constantly amazed at the talent displayed by (adult) students who think they’re less than good, who have no education beyond high school, who have a dead-end job, or who have been told they “can’t write” their entire life. With the right prompt (literally and figuratively) they grow like a flower underwatered, and create colorful large gorgeous blooms. No student is average. Ever.
    Now, on to my useless and below-average math skills. That’s what I was told in high school (in both algebra AND geometry) and I’ll admit, I hated math classes. Then, 30 years later, I tutored special ed students in high school math and attended their classes, including algebra and geometry. Viola. A lightbulb burst and I “GOT” it. I found out that algebra at least was like a wonderful puzzle/game. What fun!
    But I’ll stick to writing. 🙂


    • I feel a little bad writing about this teacher, but it was about my experience more than about her. I commented to someone else I kind of felt sorry, she had a wealth of knowledge and struggled to impart on those who were willing to learn.

      And I loved algebra for the ‘puzzle’ of it. 🙂


  4. I had a sadistic geometry teacher in high school as well. I struggled terribly in the class, and he would pick out those of us who didn’t ‘get it’ and make us go to blackboard and illustrate our stupidity in front of the entire class. One of the most demoralizing experiences I ever had in my educational journey and one that also taught me not to say “I don’t understand,” but rather to shrink as much as possible and hope the storm passes. An awful takeaway for a child. I have never forgiven the guy….


  5. I’m an algebra person also. I took Geometry and also did…middle road…nothing stellar. I was the same with foreign language. Two years of Spanish and I can ask you if you are in pain. I will hope you answer either yes or no. Anything else will make me look like a cocker spaniel with my head to one side.
    I’ve had teachers like yours also and have worked to not become one. I had the best compliment the other day from one of my students. It felt a little like the “you is kind, you is smart…) from The Help but she said “you are kind and compassionate, but also FIERCE! I know you truly care. I will carry that one with me through the remainder of my career.
    Great post, friend, and good lesson that we choose the seat many times. If we don’t like where we are sitting, we can decide to do something different.


    • That was truly a gift your student gave you. Thank you for the kind words. It took a long time to learn I didn’t have to remain where someone put me….and sometimes I need to remind myself still. Here’s to all of the wonderful teachers trying their very best!


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