MIAGD: Make it a great day
Dear Mrs. Luurtsema,
I’ve been thinking of you and Mr. Luurtsema and am delighted to read that he is being moved from ICU.
I am not good at math.
I probably never will be. And, that’s Okay. I know where my strengths are in other areas of life.
In first grade, I often sat on the curb during recess at Washington Elementary School because I could not grasp the bundle of ten sticks plus another bundle of ten sticks equaled twenty sticks. In my mind, they were simply two bundles. I was frustrated because I was simply told to “fix my errors” but the teacher never sat down with me to explain how these bundles worked.
I forged through the remainder of elementary school and somehow kept my weak math-head above water.
Then, in 8th grade, Mr. Garner persisted in trying to help me understand those decimal points and percentages. He told Mother, “Darin has this huge mental block with decimal points.”
It was the first time I recall hearing the phrase “mental block” and I assumed I was special needs in math and that I’d never move through it.
I am thinking you were at the junior high, too, and moved out to the high school with us. If so, I must not have had you in class.
Then, high school arrived and I was in your classroom on the second floor, northwest area of the high school, long before the new middle school and auditorium were added on.
Algebra had arrived.
The other students in my class were at ease and gifted in math. Sitting next to my good friend, Ann Morgan, who was brilliant in everything, did not help me absorb math skills. But, I could still separate my inner humiliation by marveling at her tremendous gift.
Within a few weeks, you were spending additional time with me in class. I felt bad because I knew you needed to assist several of my other classmates. However, you never seemed rushed or impatient.
“Is there a time you can come in to meet with me before school or maybe stay after school?”
And, we did. After school twice a week.
You were so terribly patient and never once did I feel any frustration from you for my lack of understanding.
You never gave up from September through May. Even when we had moved long into the abyss of my complete foundering. I began not turning in assignments but you encouraged me to turn them in because “I may find something where you’re connecting.” I turned them in, but there were no advances. Regardless, you never once treated me as “that kid” in your class. You greeted me with the same enthusiasm as you did the Ann Morgans in class with me.
During our after-school specials, I never detected “I really need to be doing other things! I’ve tons of papers to check and tests to grade.” You sat down next to me, propped your elbow on the student desk in which you were sitting, and reached your other hand/arm to the back of my student desk as though to embrace me with, “We’ve got this! We’re in this together.” I never ate lunch and one day I went up to my locker, outside Mrs. Yate’s biology room, and you were in your room eating your lunch. You stepped out to monitor and spied me, “Darin, are you eating lunch or in a class?” No. “Do you have a second?” Yes. You had something new to share: “Maybe looking at it this way will help you get yesterday’s work.” And, we sat the remainder of the lunchtime, your lunch uneaten, working, together.
I know I rarely accomplished fully understanding math but you never allowed me to feel the sense of non-accomplishment. There was always an encouraging phrase or even an encouraging tone in your voice that kept me from feeling like a complete failure.
I failed your class. Not surprising.
I retook remedial-Algebra my junior year with my cousin, Stan Daugherty, the basketball coach, driver’s education teacher, and math teacher. I passed. I felt accomplished, but I knew I had only passed the course, not the full embrace or love for math.
One day, you approached me at my locker and said, “Coach Daugherty said you are doing a good job in his class. I am so proud of you. If you ever need any help, stop by my room.
Occasionally, through my college years and adulthood, I was confronted with the horrors of math beyond the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, but they were rare. Even the four basics, performed in front of others, had me swimming in the perspiration pool.
Mother always insisted, “Do your best.”
She knew my math-life was a tremendous struggle and never once degraded or punished me for “not getting it” or “not working hard enough.” This served me well as a future adoptive parent who had five sons who were academically delayed by three to four years. Only one son struggled with math but that was waaaay past my own understanding. The Math Gods were gracious to me as a parent. “But look at your talents in music, English, and history?” Mother would stress. “Not everyone is good in everything, and please stop comparing yourself to Ann [Morgan] and Angie [Knotts].” And Mother always insisted she was proud of everything I did and for always trying my best when I felt failure nipping at my heels.
So, thirty-nine years (1979-1980, my freshman year) later, why is this note even important?
It’s important because while I did not grasp math concepts, I did grasp teaching techniques from you that have been invaluable in my thirty-four years of my own teaching career.
Patience. Persistence. Presence. Productive.
You taught me the most valuable tools to teach my own students.
Early on, when a student wasn’t grasping a concept in music (voice, saxophone, piano, acting, etc), I always approached it from memories of your classroom when I felt like an idiot or frustrated and put myself in my own student’s place. I gave them the “Luurtsema Lift!”
Several times a month, I share with a student or two my struggles with math and how we sometimes have that one subject or a particular method that’s not clicking, but there are different approaches in figuring it out. 99% of the time, the student and I succeed. There’s an occasional 1.999% that just doesn’t make the finish line. However, there are always so many successes and strengths to celebrate and eventually, that skill that was not clicking begins to show sparks that turn into tiny flames.
I failed algebra. But I learned so much more from you as a teacher.
No longer do I look at my algebra attempt as a failure because while it is simply a small piece that makes up the complete mosaic of my life, that experience with you prompted me as a teacher to draw upon all the wonderful techniques and qualities you shared throughout your teaching career.
Now that I have thirty-plus years of former students teaching and performing, or still participating in the performing arts while pursuing other careers, I can see the chain from you to me, to my own students.
A part of You now lives on in my own current and former students.
Thank you for never giving up on me as a student and for never allowing me to feel stupid.
And, mostly, thank you for giving me so many tremendous tools on how to be a successful teacher and to always keep the heartfelt love for each student regardless to whether they’re the top dog or struggling.