The water was rising quickly, and I was drowning. Drowning in a sea of numbers and letters, better known as algebra.
It was eighth grade, and my experience in math class each day was one of confusion, anxiety and frustration. I observed fellow students enthusiastically shouting out the answers to problems, watching their arms shoot up with zeal as they volunteered to work out equations on the board. I needed a lifeline; something to rescue me from the C’s, D’s and even F’s that I was staring at on my math tests.
That lifeline arrived in the form of my father, a career Air Force colonel who after retirement was teaching math at an inner-city middle school in a Washington, D.C., suburb.
Realizing that math was my Achilles’ heel, my dad offered to tutor me. I jumped at the opportunity to have some help from one of the smartest people I knew, who just happened to be my dad.
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With a row of perfectly arranged sharpened pencils, paper and the dreaded algebra textbook, we embarked on the formidable task of tackling algebraic concepts.
It was not an easy feat. However, something happened after the tutoring lessons started: I actually started getting problems right. I could solve complex equations, and my breathing and heart rate were returning to normal.
The difference was I had a teacher, my dad, who was patient and encouraging. His ability to clearly explain concepts to me and allow me to fail and succeed at solving math problems was what mattered. Math started to make sense, largely because of how he taught it. My affinity for math didn’t increase, but my grades did. In a few months, I was staring at B’s and the occasional A on my math tests. How is this possible, I thought? I had never seen a B on a math test. Ever.
I realized that my dad and I were a team. We were slaying the algebra dragons together, like Batman and Robin or Starsky and Hutch. The late Jim Valvano, or "Jimmy V," who led North Carolina State to the 1983 NCAA basketball championship against improbable odds, popularized the motto “survive and advance,” which is what I did in math class thanks to my dad. The lessons from math tutoring extend beyond numerical equations and the x and y slopes. Through his guidance, I learned the meaning of perseverance, optimism and patience. I learned that a father can be encouraging, calming and devoted to the success of his child.
I learned that the process is as important as the outcome and that achievement is not always correlated with talent. Sometimes achievement happens in areas of life that we struggle with, especially if we have the influence of a person who takes the time to foster ability and success. Success for me in eighth-grade algebra was earning a B for the class. It was a hard-earned B by a young lady who would have otherwise probably squeaked by with a low C at best.
My success is shared, for the B that I earned was the B that my dad and I earned together, as a team.
I realize that my love for teaching and helping students develop confidence stems from my experiences sitting with the best teacher I’ve ever had, my father, on those many evenings, with sharpened pencils and a stack of graph paper.
He provided me with life lessons that are more meaningful to me than any good grade that I could ever receive.
Coach Jimmy V also said "My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person; he believed in me." Heartfelt gratitude is owed to our dads for believing in us, and helping us 'survive and advance.' We honor you this Father's Day.
Now, I have to go balance my checkbook. Thanks, Dad.
Diane Bigler is a licensed clinical social worker and an adjunct professor. She lives in Platte City. Reach her on Facebook and LinkedIn.