Tuesday, 17 November 2009


"Teacher, I don't understand."

I sighed: Cahide again. "What don't you understand?"

Cahide opened her workbook and pointed. I took a quick look and stifled another sigh. "Can you come and see me about that tomorrow morning, before class? I can't explain all that to you right now -- I've got another class to teach."

I had to repeat this half a dozen times before she got it, but Cahide finally nodded. "Okay." It took her so long to understand, I seriously considered including her in the list of students who belonged in a lower class. I wondered when she would give up and realize that she was out of her depth.

First thing the next morning, Cahide was there with her workbook. I was surprised to see that unlike the majority of her classmates, she had completely filled in the pages I had assigned for homework. While her classmates' books were almost entirely pristine, Cahide's was full of penciled-in explanations, scrawled dictionary definitions of words in margins, erasures, crossed-out bits, and answers. Nothing had been left undone, either; she had even completed the sections I told everyone not to bother with.

It took ages for me to explain everything Cahide didn't understand, but the light of reason finally dawned and she went away, satisfied. It was enormously gratifying.

Unfortunately, she was back the next morning. She caught me gulping down coffee ten minutes before I was leaving to teach another class. "I don't understand this," she said, opening her workbook.

I took a look and blinked: she was already onto the next unit! I shook my head. "We're not doing that yet. Wait until we cover it, okay?"

She furrowed her brow and tilted her head. "Sorry? I don't understand."

I fought the urge to look at my watch. "We will do that unit the day after tomorrow. Wait until then, okay?"

When she finally understood, she nodded -- grudgingly -- then turned a few pages back to the unit we were on. "I don't understand this," she said, pointing.

I let out a slow breath. "Come and see me after class, then."

"Twelve thirty o'clock?"

I bit my lips. "Yes, twelve thirty is fine." There went my lunch break!

Sure enough, Cahide came and saw me after class and stayed an hour while I did my best to explain around hurried bites from my sandwich. She didn't leave until she was certain she had understood everything.

Over the next six weeks, Cahide hounded me and the colleague I shared her class with. She followed us out of the classroom and buttonholed us on our way to the toilet to ask us questions. We took to hiding from her, she was so determined. Her stamina and tenacity amazed us: she did every assignment we gave her, wrote every paper, filled in every form, answered every question. And if she didn't get something, she was never shy about letting us know. We began to dread her Teacher, I don't understand.

But we began to admire and respect her even more. She never gave up. When the rest of the class yawned and looked at their watches, Cahide nodded her head and raised her hand. When everyone else sprinted out as soon as it was break time, she stayed in the classroom and asked endless questions. She walked to the teachers' room with us afterward, grilling us about details. What should she be studying? How many hours? Which compositions should she be writing? Would we read her work after she had finished? Would we correct it please?

Before the midterm examination, Cahide's diligence surpassed itself. She doubled, then tripled her efforts, constantly bringing us compositions to mark and questions to answer. What impressed me the most was that she never gave any preference to my Turkish-speaking colleague. Coping with our language gap must have been as much of a trial for her as it was for me, but it never seemed to faze her. My colleague and I were exhausted, but increasingly heartened by her enthusiasm and incredible determination.

The only thing that worried us was the midterm. Many students fail the midterm, particularly those of Cahide's level. We hoped that failing wouldn't discourage her the way it has discouraged other students.

Yesterday we got the midterm results. Cahide, it turned out, got the best mark in the entire class.

"I am so proud of you!" I told her today. "You are an inspiration!"


I wrote it down for her. "Inspiration. Look that up in your English-Turkish dictionary when you get home today, okay?"

She smiled modestly, but she seemed distracted. "Okay. Teacher?"


She flipped the pages of her workbook until she found the unit we will be starting next. Pointing, she said, "I don't understand."



adrienne said...

Oh, I like her determination. Plus, she reminds me of Dory from Finding Nemo.
She's fortunate to have a very patient teacher, too!

Vijaya said...

Oh, to have a student like this. Tiring, but so rewarding. I've had my share ... all budding chemists!

Helen said...

In years to come (while you are recovering from exhaustion) she will hopefully reap the benefits of her hard work and determination. She will look back on this time and be so thankful for you, and the time you took with her. What a great teacher!

Jasmine said...

And she is going to be one of the few who turn out to be extraordinarily successful. She's fortunate to have a teacher who is patient and takes her time out to explain things to her. As you are fortunate to have a student who cares so much about what you are doing for her. :)

Jasmine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- Cahide's determination just amazes me no end. Whenever she gets something wrong, she keeps coming back to it from every possible angle until she's cracked it. I really meant it when I told her she was an inspiration. Her diligence far exceeds my patience.

Vijaya -- Honestly, I am SO grateful for her! If I quit this job tomorrow, I'd consider my time here well spent, just helping Cahide get where she wanted to go. She may be one out of five hundred, but that's still better than zero.

Helen -- It would be nice to be appreciated, but the best thanks I could have had is the look of quiet satisfaction on Cahide's face when she heard what her midterm score was. And the looks of amazement and shock on some of her classmates' faces -- they were gratifying too.

Jasmine -- Thank you for visiting!

Believe me, the pleasure is all mine. The fact that Cahide got her high score has everything to do with her persistence and much less to do with my willingness to sacrifice the occasional lunch break. But I absolutely agree: she'll go far. The best thing about this is that she comes from a part of Turkey where women are not encouraged to be more than mothers and wives.

Carolie said...

You made me get all teary-eyed! I'm sure it's incredibly wearying, but I'm so very glad you have a student with such dogged determination to succeed. Pats on the back all around!

Falak said...

She really is an inspiration! I bet the fact that she is enthusiastic to learn and not hesitant when it comes to asking her doubts has a lot of positive stuff to say about you as a teacher..... Though her persistence and determination is something you have to give credit to.

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow, you see so few students like that. Amazing. They can be exhausting, though, but very gratifying when they succeed. She's gonna owe you big time, although I know you don't expect any reward other than her bettered performance. I hope she'll realize though.

Christy said...

I wish I had half of Cahide's persistance!

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- When I heard the test results, I almost burst into tears myself! I had hoped so much that Cahide would do better than average, but when she got the best grade in the class -- by far better than anyone else's -- I was just overwhelmed with joy. Thank you for that pat on the back, though -- I need it today.

Falak -- Cahide's persistence and determination are what got her her high score. She could have done it without us, though it would probably have taken her longer. Still, we were happy to be a part of her success story!

Charles -- Most teachers would give their eye teeth for a Cahide, though there are times she has been too much of a good thing. In Japan, I had half a dozen students like her in seventeen years. Cahide beats them all hollow.

Christy -- Like I say, she is an inspiration. Whenever I feel like giving up, I'll try to remember the way she creases up her forehead and says, "I don't understand."

Kim Ayres said...

If all students wanted to learn, I would happily become a teacher :)

WordWrangler said...

WOW! I like this girl...and I don't even know her. Just wait, one day she'll point to YOU and say..."SHE's the reason I found the cure for cancer. She never gave up on me...and I never gave up on finding a cure!"



Bish Denham said...

Oh! What a champ. It's wonderful that she's so determined, but I bet you're glad all your students aren't like her.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Our daughter Amy was like that, she LOVED to learn. Not understanding was not an obstacle to her, he had to know!

I wish my high school algebra teacher would have been like that. She set the pace and when I got behind I just got further and further behind. I wonder what I could have accomplished in life had someone helped me when I needed it with algebra?

GutsyWriter said...

I just found your blog via Miss Footloose. What a great story and I loved the ending. I am fascinated by your teenage stories as we moved our teenagers from Orange County, California to Belize to teach them some important lessons. Shall come back.

kara said...

sometimes your stories of teaching make me want to take a nap. i think it's your mental exhaustion floating up into the air and crossing all those miles and time zones before landing on me. which is how you stay so awake and positive, see. it's a symbiotic blog relationship.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- I think a lot of people picture classrooms full of kids like Cahide when they go into teaching -- I know I did. I smile now just remembering. And I was just as naive when I became a parent. Ah, youth and naivete!

WW -- I can't take credit for her, much as I would love to: she did this pretty much all by herself. Another great thing about this girl is that she wants to become an engineer 'like my father'. NO girls in my classes have wanted to become engineers so far, so this is incredible. She'll make it, all right!

Bish -- I'd never be able to drink coffee, eat lunch, or visit the lavatory, but even still, I could do with a few more kids like Cahide in my class.

Robert -- It's a great thing to have that kind of thirst for learning. I took my kids to a Japanese tutorial center when they were little, meaning to give the younger one the rudiments of reading and writing in Japanese before we left for the U.K., since the older one already had this. The older kid BEGGED to be allowed to study there too because she was "thirsty for knowledge." She did well there, but all she really wanted was a crack at the free candies and prize novelties. Still, whatever it takes.

My mother and a tutor both did their damnedest to help me with algebra AND geometry. That one was all my fault, but reading your post, I wish they'd given you a hand instead: you deserved it. I didn't.

Gutsy Writer -- Belize? I am SO envious! I got as far as Guatemala and was desperate to go to Belize, but dysentery stopped me. I will be visiting your blog as soon as I can to hear all about YOUR experiences there! I can hardly imagine a bigger change than going from Orange County to Belize, but good for you. Your kids could hardly learn a better lesson.

Kara -- I could use a nap myself just thinking about some of the stuff I've done in my classrooms. But I'm glad you qualified what you wrote: I suspect I really do put people to sleep, but they're too nice (or comatose) to let me know.

Charlie said...

After so much famine, I can understand having a feast--even though you had to do the prep work.

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- Cahide drives us wild -- even now she's there first thing in the morning, lurking, ready to ask endless hard-to-answer questions, keeping us from our coffee and toilet breaks -- but you are SO right: she's the feast after the famine. Just wish I could take away a little of her and siphon it into the others...