The Silence of Fear and Shame

“Feel free to ask questions if you don’t understand.” All of my teachers spoke those words during every math lesson. I know the gesture was meant to make students feel safe and welcome to ask for help, but I never saw it that way. First grade stands out in my memory as a pivotal time because I never struggled with confidence until then.

My desk was one of 30 positioned in rows all facing the chalkboard and overhead projector. A number line printed on the laminated name-tag in hand-written D’Nealian Manuscript was a tool I didn’t know how to use. I thought I was familiar with numbers, but as I sat through an addition lesson, those familiar numeric symbols might as well have been hieroglyphics. Two numbers stacked vertically to the right of a plus sign signified a concept that stumped my creative mind. I understood addition concretely, for example, a certain number of apples combined with other apples equaled more apples altogether. Translating my concrete understanding into symbolic (numerical) form did not compute in my brain.

I stared for a long time at the white paper with what seemed like a million little stacks of numbers organized in a neat grid. All around me pencils darted back and forth as my peers feverishly scrawled sums on their papers. No one else seemed to be having the same trouble I was.  I became oddly aware of the time ticking past, and I had nothing written down beside my name and the date.

I don’t understand this.

Why don’t I understand this like the other kids?

I can’t let anyone know that I don’t understand or they may call me names.

I’m not stupid…am I?

The idea of asking a question in front of my peers was like asking me to drop my pants in front of them. I imagined laughing, pointing, jeering children taking shots at me for asking basic questions. I worried that maybe I was stupid because no one asked any questions similar to the ones pulsating through my head.

Raising my hand was a target. Like being in the trenches in WW1 with enemy snipers ready to shoot at anything that peeked over the shoulder of the foxhole. The public-forum of the question-portion of the lesson resulted in all 30 heads craning in in my direction, eyes focused, ears tuned. I did not want to draw any fire from my classmates. Asking questions left me uncomfortable and exposed, so I just stopped.

I decided never to let on that I struggled in mathematics, that I would never show my cards and that even if I didn’t understand I would fake it until I did.


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