August Inspired2Educate Winner

Marjorie Masse
Math interventionist
Westford Public Schools
Westford, MA

I was one of those kids.

My 2nd grade teacher complained, “She cries all the time. She never sits still. Her handwriting is atrocious.” I was holding my mother’s hand while this conversation proceeded. It was hard to believe that this would become my lucky day. Then I saw Ms. Smith, our effervescent gym teacher, walking towards us. Catching the tone of the meeting, she suggested a solution to those behaviors that had become the low end benchmark for my peers. “Marjorie’s behaviors,” Mrs. B would teach the class, were the best way to earn black marks on a behavior chart that was otherwise glistening with metallic stars; none of them mine. From where I sat in the classroom, next to the teacher’s desk and separated from the other students by a piece of plywood, I would count the stars I never got and notice the pattern made by the uninterrupted black checkmarks next to my name. Artistic interpretations aside, there in the hallway stood my mother, Ms. Smith, and Mrs. B, discussing my misdemeanors and their likely motivations. I was unsure why doing cartwheels from one desktop to another was a bad thing. I was the only one of my friends who could pull that off. Nor could I understand why all the other children could make their pencils work so well. Apparently though, these were BIG problems. So it went on like this for 15 minutes: Mrs. B listing my transgressions, my mother defending our family values, and Mrs. Smith listening, when at last, I thought I heard one good thing.

“You could send her to me. I have plenty to do in gymnasium. She can help me polish vaults or she could just spend some time on the balance beam. She loves the balance beam. She can join the other gym classes. Then maybe she will be more prepared to come back to your class.”

What? Did I get this correct? Probably not. I usually don’t get things right. Am I really going to the gym?

Walking home, my mother asked me why I cried so much. I told her that I didn’t know, but I do know now. I could not read. Yet! I could not write. Yet! I hated sitting there all day being told what I did wrong, and not being allowed to sit with my friends. She asked me to try not to cry so much, and I did try. And it got easier.

The next day, I walked to school and pointed my mind towards not crying. I still don’t know if it was my handwriting or my not being able tell a b from a d that set her off, but before I knew it, Mrs. B was marching me down the hall. I thought we were heading to the principal’s office but instead we went to the annex; the gym. I was delivered with these instructions, “Bring her back in time for music. Let me know if she cries again.”

Mrs. Smith, took my hand and led me into what would become my 2nd grade sanctuary. In the sunlight, we polished vaults, and stacked and cleaned mats. I was asked to put them into piles of ten. I climbed ropes and practiced balance beam routines. We worked. Stravinsky or Mozart played. When other children arrived, I played.

Most clearly, I remember a day when I was practicing a swan jump, followed by a round-off dismount. Mrs. Smith asked me if I knew what my routine would be worth in a grade 4 gymnastics meet. She walked me through each of the moves I could consistently make. We figured out that I needed 3/4s of a point to win a grade 4 meet. I was finally good at something at school! She showed me a book with moves and values. There under the beam, I learned to add 1/4 and 1/2. Up on the beam, I practiced while Mrs. Smith talked about fractions, gravity, momentum, and muscle cells. She spoke of history and maps. I jumped and twirled, and began to know that the world was interesting.

I became the school’s left wing in soccer. I was 1 of only 3 girls to play 4 intramural sports. I co-wrote petitions, one allowing girls to wear pants and one allowing us to play football. I began to do well in science and then math. I could read a little by grade 4. I crept through high school gaining most of my self-esteem through sports. I tried to go to college three times and finally taught myself to read in my twenties. At 27, I completed a BS degree in Microbiology. At 39, I got my Master’s of Education.

I am one of the lucky ones. Someone saw me as worthwhile. Someone understood that in all kinds of minds there is capability. Someone tried and cared deeply about a student who couldn’t read or write, YET! I wish I could have written Mrs. Smith a thank you note back then. Furthermore, I would want her to know that now as a teacher, I understand the child whose writing is illegible, the negative self-talk that defeats a student before s/he even tries, and I know that every statement that begins with “I can’t,” must end with the word “yet.”

On a wall in my classroom there are three 3-foot high letters and an exclamation point. YET! It is the biggest word in the room. It is there because Yet! takes away limits. It is there for each of my students when they think that they can’t do something, It is there for me when I can’t quite find a way to reach a struggling student. It is there because of Mrs. Smith. Thank you!