A Difficult Lesson

Memoir of Learning Something Difficult

            Throughout elementary school I found that I was not challenged often, as school came quite easily to me. I would often finish assignments early and be allowed to draw or complete busy work that served no purpose other than keeping me occupied. I found that I began to lose interest in school and had very little respect for my teachers; I did not feel compelled to do my schoolwork when told because I figured I would finish it quickly anyway. Even though my grades did not fluctuate, I became quite bored while at school and began to dread going to a place that I once loved. My view of school was turned around on me in grade five when I encountered the best teacher I had ever been taught by and my favorite teacher throughout my schooling. His name was Mr. Knight, and this experience came as a shock to me as a ten year old with set ideas about school. He was the first male teacher I had ever met, the first teacher who did not believe in busy work, and the first teacher to realize that even though I was a quick learner, it did not mean I could be pushed into a corner to occupy myself. He was probably the first teacher to take a genuine interest in my learning, and I was not prepared as I was always the quiet, well behaved student that was basically ignored. This is also the grade where I came across the first project that I really struggled with, and it was probably one of the best learning experiences I remember. I will always be thankful to Mr. Knight for his patience throughout the process.

            The project was an arts assignment, and I had believed it would be simple; after all, the arts were my strong point. I was and still am an arts student at heart, however this art assignment brought me to tears of frustration numerous times. The project in question was calligraphy, which is artistic writing using fountain pens provided by our teacher. Mr. Knight explained the project to us, and it was relatively simple; we had to learn five types of calligraphy fonts and write in each neatly. After we accomplished this, we could move on to the next project and he would give us our own fountain pen as a reward. I started the project off thinking that I just wanted to get it over with so that I could get my own fountain pen. I rushed through the work and showed it to my teacher, but he turned me away and said I rushed. I tried harder the second time around and showed him my paper feeling satisfied, yet he turned me away for a second time saying that I could do better. This was the first time I had ever been told my work was not good enough and I could not understand why he was picking on me. As I started working for the third time, I noticed other students receiving their pens and being given instructions for the next project. At this point I remember feeling angry and hurt, as some of the other students had messier penmanship than mine and he was still accepting their work.

            Looking back on the experience now, I think that Mr. Knight understood that I was not usually pushed to work to the best of my ability. I think he felt it was important for me to understand the feeling of accomplishment when I finally worked hard and succeeded. At the time however, I was miserable and it felt like my world was crashing down. I can remember the panic I felt as the first student received her pen. I was always the first one to complete assignments and for some reason I felt like that was my role. I could not focus enough to do the work and found myself obsessed with watching how other people were doing on the assignment. We usually had art classes every other day for about an hour, so this pattern carried on for about a week. The following week I remember being more motivated to finish the project as the other students were beginning a painting project that I really wanted to be a part of. I think it was around the sixth time I had completed the project when I felt that I had done a really good job and showed it to the teacher. He said to try again and I burst out crying in front of my peers, which was probably the most embarrassing and hurtful part of the project. As I sulked at my desk, Mr. Knight continued to work with the other students on their art. I remember feeling like a failure as the last student received their fountain pen. I cannot remember the details but I do know I did not want to return to school the next day because I felt that I was being singled out. Even now I think he may have been a little harsh as I was only ten years old. Yet I can see exactly why he did it, and I think I needed the lesson. It was the end of the second week when I finished the assignment again; however I did not show it to my teacher. Instead I shoved it in my desk and watched the other children working on the painting (it was a class mural). Mr. Knight must have noticed because he told me to stay inside for the recess break so we could talk.

            Now I was feeling like a failure and thought I was being punished, which was a terrible feeling. At recess, Mr. Knight asked to see my work and I pulled it out, ready to be told that it was not good enough. He asked me what I thought when I looked at the writing, and asked me to criticize my own work. I looked it over and pointed out some small flaws that I noticed. I then got another piece of paper and prepared to do the assignment again. At this point he told me that it was okay, and that I could hand this copy in and he would hang it up with the others. I agreed and was allowed to go out for recess. Later I noticed my work on the board with the others but remembered that I had not yet received my very own fountain pen. I felt like he had accepted my work but still did not believe it was the best I could do. I remember finishing up another assignment early and asking my friend to borrow her fountain pen. I worked on a new project, this time really carefully and even added a few drawings to make it more artistic. I then asked Mr. Knight if he liked it. Instead of responding, he asked me to stay in for recess again. I cannot remember what I was thinking at this point, but I think I was worried.

Now I use my fountain pens all the time for different types of art projects...

 At recess, he took my new work and asked me the same question as before, except this time I could not spot any flaws. I said that I had been careful not to be messy and took my time. He told me that it showed, and explained how he appreciated receiving work that students cared about. He wanted me to understand that there was no value in rushed work, and there was no reason to be the first finished all the time. He then hung up my new project beside my old one and gave me my fountain pen. He also gave me a booklet of different types of calligraphy and said he was proud that I worked so hard. Looking back I think he knew that when he accepted my work that I was already starting to think more critically and would not be satisfied till I had done my absolute best.

During this ordeal, I not only learned how to write in different fonts (which I continue to use now), but I also learned about the value of hard work. I felt much better about handing in an assignment that I could be proud of than I did when I was first to hand in my assignments. I learned how to be self critical and patient, as well as developing a touch of perfectionism. I think the hardest thing that I had to deal with in this lesson however was my sense of who I was in the school environment. I was used to being the girl who teachers loved; I handed in everything first and was never encouraged to work on anything more difficult. I think that I felt threatened, and it scared me that I could not complete my assignment properly. I felt really low at that point, but the happiness after I finished the assignment for the eighth time made it feel worthwhile. I think that this lesson about my own learning continued throughout the year as Mr. Knight challenged me in every subject. I remember being dared to read a book that was nearly four hundred pages long, to try a page of algebra questions, to play floor hockey with the boys and numerous other challenges that I completed and felt really good about. It helped my self esteem to be doing work at a higher difficulty level, and I felt that my teacher appreciated how hard I was trying. The most important thing that I learned that year, from that project and from all the others was that some teachers do care. Even though I was a good student, it did not mean I did not deserve attention as much as the other students. Mr. Knight taught me what I was capable of and gave me motivation to force myself to learn difficult things. I found that I was more capable of looking for answers to questions myself, and learning things for myself when bored instead of doodling or wasting my time.

     Thinking back on that year, it makes me think about how this will affect me as a future teacher. I think I will be more aware of my students and their academic levels. I want to be able to push every student without pushing too far, and I think that teaching them to be self motivated would a great way to get through to many students. One thing I will be sure to remember is the importance of working with every student, and not leaving the quicker learners on their own as even they can use some guidance and a push forward once in a while. The most difficult thing I learned throughout the process was letting go of the role I thought I held in school. I am not sure why I was so anxious about not finishing my assignments first, or why I was so devastated about finishing last. However, I do know that they were very difficult emotions to deal with and they taught me how to be more critical in my thinking. Especially about my own thinking and the understanding of how I was thinking and the reasons backing up my trains of thought. Dealing with a situation which threw me into a state of disjuncture and then challenged me helped me to grow emotionally as well as academically. I feel that if I had simply had to redo the project once I would have felt picked on, and probably would not have understood the deeper meanings to the lesson. Therefore even though it seemed like the end of the world to my ten year old self, and it was a hard lesson to learn I am glad that I had the experience. I am thankful that I was given the opportunity to learn the value of putting real effort into my work, I may have received the same grade on the project either way but at least I could feel better about my accomplishments. That satisfaction with my own achievements also led to an increase in my self-esteem which I really needed at the time.

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