A hot ball of adrenaline welled up in my belly this morning, being the first day I would step into the class to teach the students. I hadn’t been in a classroom since I left the university. So, I was eager to lay my hand on a chalk again.
Earlier in the morning, my throat was sore – an occurrence that showed that the weather was affecting me. But by sheer willpower, I kicked it aside and my normal voice came back to life.
I got into the class wearing a smile and the students caught on with it right away. The glee on their faces showed their zeal to learn from the new tutor who’d stirred them up the previous day.
“Mister Jack is here!” they whispered.
I wanted to give them the impression that gears had changed. Maths classes, as they knew it, would take a different turn. What came to mind was to give them a quick assessment test. Doing so would help gauge their keenness on the subject, and it will dictate the pace of the lessons to come.
“Bring out your pen and paper. You have two minutes to prepare for a short test.”
They gasped in surprise and took a second but curious look at me. Some laughed it off thinking it was a joke. Writing unplanned tests felt like a new experience to them.
Not even my straight-face or glowered looks convinced them. But when I dangled the questions sheets for all to see, they scampered for their writing materials.
Right away, I distributed the papers which had twenty-five questions selected from different subject areas. The test wouldn’t count as part of their school assessment, though, and I might not even mark the scripts.
“You have thirty minutes to submit your papers and your time starts now.”
While they tackled the questions, I moved around observing each of them closely. The smart ones got busy solving the questions. The lazybones fiddled with their pens, and the daring ones couldn’t stay quiet.
“Sir, are these grade-twelve questions or you brought them from the university?” One boy voiced out his concern.
“Grade-twelve, of course,” I said, smiling at him.
Another naughty boy started grumbling. “We are not used to tests on Tuesdays.”
“Fine. Get used to that from now on.”
But the complaints didn’t stop until they got ridiculous.
“The size of the paper is smaller than the ones from other teachers.”; “Can we solve them with pencils instead of pens?”; “Sir, your height is blocking the chalkboard.”; “The diagrams are too big.”; “I’m allergic to Maths.”
Knowing that the complaints bordered on the difficulty solving the problems, I didn’t entertain such frivolous remarks.
Thirty minutes later, I gathered the papers and went through them cursorily, observing their woeful performances. Only two of them attempted all questions, and their approaches to the questions left a sour taste in the mouth.
The disappointment that descended on my face got them puzzled. They observed that the cordiality I’d showed the previous day wasn’t the same as the disciplinarian stance I exhibited after going through the papers. I gave them my verdict immediately: “You have all let me down. I’m not impressed.”
Hands went up for comments, but many yelled: “Why have we let you down?”
“When I gave you the questions, I thought you would attempt them without complaints. But many of you came up with unexpected excuses. Then after going through your papers, I was surprised with the things you wrote. For example, question four says you must remove the bracket from an algebraic expression. Some of you rubbed off the parenthesis from the paper. How so? Is there something you want to tell me?”
Many hands went up again, but I pointed at three of them.
The first boy rose to his feet. “We can never pass Maths, sir, the ancestors said so. They didn’t pass the subject too.”
The second girl said things in the same vein; mouthing complaints that the subject wasn’t designed for them to pass.
The foulest remark came from the last boy. He stood up, dusted off his trousers and pushed out his chest. I thought he had an emotional story to share with his peers. “Mathematics is not for Africans,” he said slowly.
The class erupted into laughter and I joined them. Then I recalled that I was there to motivate them and to correct whatever misconceptions they had. With that kind of comments, I had some serious work to do. I would have to do a re-orientation.
Though only three of them spoke, their concerns evidently reflected the opinions of others. I got their message: Mathematics was a difficult subject, and they thought they couldn’t improve on it.
With hands in both pockets, I paced across the front of the class. Then I went through the rows looking into their faces, one after another, trying to connect with them and to ease their tension. Most avoided direct eye contact with me.
Even if Vivian had been asked to step aside, I thought of carrying her along before introducing my reforms. After sending for her, I walked up to meet her for a chat at the doorstep, making sure the students were out of earshot.
“Their morale is low. They don’t believe they stand a chance of passing this subject at all. It must have been tough dealing with them.”
“You can say that again,” she said and placed a hand on her forehead.
“I can imagine. And they are lazy… Anyway, I’ll take them to the field to run around every morning and make the class more entertaining. Doing so will open their minds when I’m teaching them. Only then would they be introduced to the changes that the new curriculum recommends. Will you like to join us while we go through all that?”
“Uhm, no…not yet. I have other classes to take, you know. So I’ll be busy.”
“All right, I’ll manage. When I run into hitches, I’ll let you know.” Her response wasn’t unexpected, though.
Back with the students, I cleared my throat. “Mathematics is one of the easiest subjects.” Their mouths opened as if I’d told them that the planet had seventy continents.
“If you think it’s impossible for you to know Maths, then you’ll find it hard. But when you sit down to look at it, you’ll notice that it’s a subject that doesn’t depend on opinions. Two plus two will always be four. From Port-Elizabeth to Port-Harcourt; Johannesburg to Cairo; one plus one will always be two. Is that so?”
“Yeeessss,” they chorused, as usual.
They warmed up to me, eager to know the new stuff I would introduce to them.
“Many of you have become lazy. I observed that from the way you move around the school. From today on, we must start the day at the playground.”
Their faces brightened at what felt like good news.
“Come to school tomorrow with your tracksuits, trainers and other sports wears and materials. Those of you with soccer or net balls are free to bring them. For the girls, wear something comfortable that will make it easy for you to participate in the jumping, running and moving around. After the exercise, we’ll then come here for lessons. I’ll be on the field to train with you and to guide you. When you are physically fit and your brain is well stimulated, you’ll do well in class.”
They were taken aback on how jogging at the playground could help them in Maths. If it was that that easy, they would have been doing it long ago.
Somizi stood up before being called. “Sir, I walk three kilometres to school every day. If Maths was about jogging, I should have an ‘A’ every year. But my last result was bad, and I’m not alone.”
They all yelled, “Yes…yes”
Instantly, heads got knocked together as they started speaking in hushed tones.
A boy stood up and identified himself as Mduduzi. Even before talking, his peers started laughing.
“Sir Jack. Is this your own idea or its part of the new curriculum?”
The laughter picked up, but I didn’t mind. Encouraging them to speak up was part of my strategy.
“It’s my initiative, Mduduzi, but it’s in the present curriculum that you must be fit.” His face creased up as if he had more to talk about.
“Was the syllabus written in the Chinese language?” he said slowly, but without emotions.
“What do you mean by that?”
“If it wasn’t written in Chinese, why didn’t Miss Vivian and the other teachers take us to the playground for enjoyment?”
The uproar that followed took a while to subside.
Vivian had welcomed me well; so I had to be wary of them insulting her. That I stood in for her didn’t make her any less competent. Her approach might have been different.
“Your teachers are very busy and teachers use different approaches while teaching Maths. Mind you, going to the playground is for serious fitness training. You will do different challenging workouts there. It won’t be for idling about like you are imagining. You will sweat it out there.”
Raising my voice higher, I asked: “Are you ready for it?”
“We are ready,” they chorused aloud.
For the next two days, they saw changes in their daily activities. Each day, we started at the playground for some physical exercise sessions. Aerobics, running and jumping were part of our routine. A bit of physical exercise in the morning would improve brain function, and that would, in turn, improve their academic performance, I was convinced.
We had workouts for one hour before the morning assembly. We then returned to the classroom for Maths lessons. Before the lunch break, we had lessons again during the regular Maths period.
After the closing bell at 2:30 p.m., we returned to the class until 4 p.m. It would be time for revisions and past exam questions.
It was an intensive daily Mathematics training. I wanted them to feel the subject in a different and positive way. Failing in the assignment wasn’t an option for me.
Seeing how busy we trained on the sports ground each morning, the principal called me to his office.
“Mr Mutetey, you can ask the grade-twelve students to stay away from the morning assembly. I can see that you people are very busy around that time.”
“Oh, thank you, sir. We are just trying to be fit.”
“It’s important. Good effort.”
It continued like that for the first few days of my stay and, I wasn’t tired of doing the same each day. Having been away from the gym for long, it was a bit of a challenge at first. But I shouldn’t be seen to be sloppy; so I doubled the effort to give them the impression that I was a fitness addict. The idea stuck fast.
The only snag came during the late afternoon classes. The guys would give signals that they wanted to smoke. But I always turned deaf ears to such requests. Others complained at intervals that they were hungry.
“Ulambile!” they would shout and hold on to their bellies.
“Did you see me eating or going out to drink something while we are in class?”
“No, sir. B..but…”
“No complaints; we are in this together.”
That shut them up.