In response to The New York Times article “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing.”
410. “Have Your Ever Been Humiliated by a Teacher? How Did it Affect You?”
I normally did not do my homework, but this time I had.
In pre-Calculus we were assigned homework everyday: plug and chug kinds of exercises that proved you knew your way around a calculator, or knew how to copy. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it doesn’t matter, I handed the one sheet of penciled math problems directly to my teacher. The way he made rounds to pick up homework at the beginning of class scared the crap out of us: he was an Vietnam vet, who patched his jeans while we took tests, coached the girls’ volley ball team, and needed glasses to see his own handwriting. Once I was walking the outer perimeter of school, after school, crossing the carpool lane’s exit gate. As I cross the gate, a car came to a screeching stop just next to my knees. It was the math teacher. He was arched over his steering wheel, head cocked to the side as if to say, Imma run you over. He meant it as a joke of course.
First, you would hand in homework to the teacher directly. Then, he would slip the graded homework into a bin at the back of the classroom.
The next day when my table partner brought back our homework from the bin, complaining of his low grade marked in red, I saw my paper, and saw there wasn’t any red. My paper wasn’t graded. Just a bit of smearing on the penciled problems on the page.
At the end of class: “Excuse me, sir,” I asked the math teacher. “Why is my homework not graded?”
He turned up to me with big eyes, from over his lowered glasses, and gave me a look that echoed my words sarcastically. “Excuse me?”
“You must not have turned it in yesterday,” he said.
“I swear,” I told him, “I gave it to you. You picked it up.”
“Was the homework in the bin?”
“Yes,” I said, tearing up. Even though I was standing and he was sitting, I felt shorter than him. “It was in the bin, but it wasn’t graded.”
“Sorry,” he said, turning back down to grade other papers. “Students have given me that same ole story before.”
“They say they found their ungraded paper in the bin. But they had put it in themselves.” He turned up, this time with a smile. “This is why I pick up the homework personally.”
I argued that I had handed it to him, but he was unmoved. I left. If I had stayed any longer I would have shed tears.
With the loose leaf paper scrunched in my hands, I lightly stepped into my next class, down-cast, and sad. High school angst weighing me down. I felt like a wimp.
A buddy of mine in the next class, European History, wanted to tell me something about a new (old) Cure album he had stumbled upon. Putting a pinch of his long black hair behind his ear, he asked, “What’s up, man?”
Defeat couldn’t had made itself more obvious on my face, but the fact that I had to admit it out loud, in class, to my buddy, was worse. “I’m having a bad day, dude, can’t talk.”
When I turned up to look at his reaction, his eye brow was raised. Before I could explain, my history teacher caught what I had said. With his palms to the podium he used, he announced in a deep voice: “I have never heard that from a young man,” he said. “I mean, back in my day, you would never hear one young man tell his friend that he was having a bad day.” He began to make a point about how sensitive boys were these days, punctuated with wows, deep hmms, and you see class?
I didn’t know if he meant I was mature for my age, or different. But I sank into my seat. I didn’t know if he meant I was strong for telling the truth, or if I was too open. But my eyes felt dry in spite of my tears, and I couldn’t keep my lips from trembling. I didn’t know if he meant to embarrass me by making his big point before class about men and their feelings. But he did; he kept talking about it. “What happened?” he asked, at the end of his pontification, well into class time, all of my classmates seeing me slide lower and lower under the table.
“He didn’t grade your homework?” the history teacher confirmed.
I shook my head No.
Before that day I had admired my history teacher. He had complimented my music tastes once, called me European (in the European History class) once, leaving a impression on me about who I was, for the rest of my life. But the way he had used my story to make a point about boys expressing their feelings destroyed me that day. Of course, he never spoke to the math teach on my behalf.
My dad called the school that day, and had my homework 0-grade turned into, what’s it called when it doesn’t count against you any more, a voided assignment? On my final grade, it was like the homework never happened.
I stopped speaking up in that class. Teachers scared me. Talking to them brought water to my eyes. And I…yeah…hm.