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A Caring Teacher Helped Me Conquer Physics
Neha Basnet
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I’ve always been a good student. I may not be the smartest in the class, but I am generally ambitious and hard-working.

For a long time, though, math and science classes were an exception. These subjects for me are harder than others (which is a little ironic, since I go to a math and science high school). I used to be content to get by with lower grades in math and science. That mindset changed thanks to my sophomore year physics teacher, Mr. Stevens (not his real name).

That year, as always, the first weeks of school were hectic, with many people switching classes. Normally sophomores take chemistry, but scheduling is difficult in a big school, and I wound up being placed in physics with about eight other sophomores. I knew I was in for a difficult time; having to take physics early seemed like some type of punishment.

Defeating Myself

I wanted to be in chemistry like the rest of my class, and brought a poor attitude with me to physics. Each day I’d arrive and wait for class to be over. I would try to listen to Mr. Stevens’ lessons, but they seemed hard to understand and I didn’t feel like trying.

So I didn’t. I flunked quizzes and tests, yet never bothered to ask questions. I also told myself that since I was doing great in my other five classes, I didn’t need to worry about physics.

I ended up failing the class in the first marking period. Initially I felt devastated; I had never failed a class before. But I convinced myself that it wasn’t a big deal, and continued with my sour outlook throughout the second marking period. I guessed that my teacher could see I didn’t care, and would be happy to keep failing me. But at the end of the second marking period, something unusual happened.

As on every other day, I sat through his lesson waiting for the final bell. Once it rang, I hopped out of my desk and started gathering my things. Just then, Mr. Stevens called my name.

I looked up. He said, “I’d like to speak to you once you’re ready.” I nodded. Great! He was going to give me a boring lecture on how I should take advantage of the free education I had been given, or start asking why I didn’t care about school. Blah, blah. He didn’t know me; he just knew my performance in this one class, so I wouldn’t let his aggression affect me. What could he do? Threaten to call my parents? They couldn’t penalize me for struggling. So with my head up high I walked over to his desk, ready for anything he was going to throw at me.

An Unexpected Approach

Right away, he gave me a welcoming smile and asked how my day was going. Surprised at his friendly manner, I told him I was actually a little stressed about a geometry exam, but other than that, I was all right. I assumed it was small talk before he landed the big speech, but what he had to say next surprised me even more.

“I just wanted to let you know that I know you’re not doing as well as you could be in your class. I’m positive you are capable of way more, Neha. I picked up your transcript from the guidance counselor’s office today and I see you have good grades in your other classes. Physics is a little difficult for you, huh?”

I couldn’t answer. I was trying to digest the fact that he actually went and reviewed my transcript. I wondered if it could be that he was actually curious about me as an individual.

But part of me was just defiant. He said I was struggling in “my” class—Hello? Physics was his class. Not mine. I was just forced to take it.

He continued, “I want to invite you to tutoring. I tutor Tuesdays and Thursdays and plenty of students come in. It does get crowded sometimes, so I can’t always guarantee I’ll be able to help you on the particular topic you’re struggling with, but if necessary we can arrange morning tutoring as well. I can sit down and review with you exactly what you are having problems with in deeper detail.”

I tried to read his face, wondering what the catch was. The tutoring sessions weren’t news to me, but I never expected him to reach out and invite me. Most teachers only pay attention to the students who look like they care. My geometry teacher always told us, “I’m not even going to bother with kids who do not want to help themselves.” This teacher obviously had a different approach.

One of the Regulars

I had to snap out of my thoughts to respond to him, in case he would think I was stupid or disrespectful. I just nodded, and he smiled again, warm and simple.

image by Freddy Bruce

The next day I decided to attend tutoring. I felt like I sort of had to. After he had spoken to me privately and taken out my transcript, how could I not? It was only polite, and who knew? Maybe it would help my grades.

I found the first session I attended really productive. I got to ask any questions I had, since there weren’t so many students in the way. I couldn’t daydream, because there was no one in front of me whose head I could hide behind.

After that, I tried to attend tutoring sessions often. I felt obligated to respond to Mr. Stevens’ efforts to help—especially since, after all, I did need it. I’d usually go once a week, but if I was having an especially hard time or there was an upcoming test, I’d go twice or three times a week. I began to make progress, and to understand the material.

Frustrated and Discouraged

Unfortunately, when the tests came, I was still not getting the grades I wanted. I had been trying hard and feeling like I grasped all these topics. Why was I unable to perform on exams?

I felt embarrassed, thinking that Mr. Stevens must consider me stupid, and expressed my frustrations to him. He continued to encourage me. “If not this test, you will do better on another,” he’d say. Or he’d tell me, “These grades won’t mean anything to you 10 years from now. Just try your best.” His desire for me to achieve made me want to achieve also. So I continued attending tutoring, studying at home, and working hard.

In the week leading up to midterms, Mr. Stevens stayed for two hours after school each day to help us prepare. I went daily, but on the eve of the midterm, a few concepts were still not in my grasp. I felt betrayed by myself, and thought that Mr. Stevens was just signing himself up for disappointment by encouraging me. Once again I told him that I would not succeed.

Always Obstacles

At the end of class that day, Mr. Stevens called me up to his desk. He advised me to take a break from studying, rather than pressure myself to cram at home. “Listen. You will come across much bigger obstacles than this, Neha,” he began. “There will always be something that you struggle with, but it should not be a reason to feel bad. I had cancer and it was my personal obstacle. I had to overcome it, and I did. Physics is only a class; keep your attitude positive and work hard.”

I nodded my head, surprised to learn he was a cancer survivor. He seemed perfectly healthy to me. My respect for him grew even more: After encountering something so negative in his life, he was able to stay optimistic. I felt inspired by his attitude. It was hard to feel confident about the test, but if his reactions were always positive, why couldn’t mine be, too?

Mr. Stevens was right to tell me I shouldn’t worry. I wound up doing much better than I expected on my midterm. Finally seeing progress gave me an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment, and—still inspired by Mr. Stevens’ example—I started to work on believing more in myself. My good results made it easier to stay motivated and keep up my hard work. I continued to take advantage of the tutoring sessions before or after school, and to listen to Mr. Stevens’ encouraging words.

Success!

By the time the final came around, my grades had been rising and I was feeling much better about physics than ever before. Even when I had a setback and got a lower grade than I wanted on a test, I just told myself I would do better next time. Then I would work for it, studying to make sure I fully understood concepts. I tried to face each test with confidence and little stress.

In the end, I passed the final. Although my grade wasn’t great, I was proud of myself. Early in the year I had given up on this class, and couldn’t have imagined even sitting to take the physics final. Now I’d conquered it.

Mr. Stevens simply smiled and said, “Great job, I’m so proud of you.” I was glad I had finally rewarded his investment in me. His help and encouragement had given me the motivation to work hard, and the best way to thank him was to be the best student I could be.

A Shared Accomplishment

Overcoming my resistance to physics meant more than just a number on a test. I learned how valuable positivity is. If I hadn’t been willing to attend the tutoring sessions, or to get to know my teacher better, I probably would have failed. But by taking a chance and accepting a challenge, even when my grades were nothing but discouraging, I got to experience a great accomplishment.

I’m also grateful to have had such a dedicated teacher. I still think about the way Mr. Stevens described physics as my class, not his. Though it annoyed me at the time, now it makes me feel empowered. My classes are my opportunity; what I get out of them is up to me, not the teacher or other students. It was my commitment, my decision to work hard, that helped me learn and finally pass.

At the same time, if Mr. Stevens had been the kind of teacher who only wants to help students who already care about his class, I would have continued to believe I was incapable of doing well in physics. When a teacher reaches out to a student like Mr. Stevens reached out to me, they can break through whatever barriers a student has put up and help the student grow not only academically, but as a person. It is an inspiring feeling to know that someone is encouraging you and supporting you to be the best you can be. Mr. Stevens has made a tremendous difference to how I will look at obstacles in future, even those beyond the classroom.

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(NYC-2011-11-04)

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