To the Calculus Class of 2020

As I’m writing this, it’s been just a couple hours since being back in our classroom for the first time since the lockdown. Being back was eerie. The empty desks. The papers I was going to hand back. The calendar still reading March 13. 

The room felt stiff. Like it knew it hadn’t held the life it was designed to hold. 

While I’m still grieving how this year ended, I treasure the months we did get.  I know this because it’s clear your absence leaves an emptiness not only in our room, but in my heart.  I’ve missed you since spring break.  And that’s how I know that what we have is something good.

As you know, calculus has two branches: differential and integral (you didn’t think you’d be spared a math lesson, did you?). Maybe this is a sign that I’ve spent too much time on this topic, but I feel like calculus has a lot to teach us beyond mathematics.  Let’s start with integral calculus: we use infinitesimally small pieces to calculate the whole.  Inch by inch we get closer to the full picture, but we need every little slice to understand the grand view.  In differential calculus, at one moment our derivative may be entirely incalculable (the function isn’t differentiable there), but if we skootch over just a smidge, now everything is fine—all computations work and are even fairly quick to compute.  In life, sometimes things seem incalculably impossible in one moment, and then we move just a bit—get a different perspective or form some boundaries, perhaps—and the solution is clear.  And just like in integral calculus, sometimes it feels like we’re moving at a snail’s pace (along the x-axis, of course!), but never forget that each little slice is needed to form the whole picture.  We’re progressing towards our calling, infinitesimal inch by infinitesimal inch.  Don’t forget that in all this waiting.  We are still moving forward, as slowly as it feels sometimes.  You are called to amazing things—each and every one of you.  If there’s one lesson I want you to remember from calculus it’s that you need each inconceivably small part to make the whole.  Each piece is vital.

People ask me all the time what it’s like to teach high school. And every time I respond, “I love it.  It’s the best job in the world.”  I’ve thought a lot about why I love teaching so much, and I’ve come to this conclusion: I love it because I love who I am when I’m with you.  You bring out the best version of me.  I could never teach nor give you as much as you’ve taught and given me.  You’ve taught me that every story is significant—that everyone has something to teach us.  You’ve taught me to listen more and speak less; you’ve taught me how to give praise abundantly in times of joy; and how to hold sorrow in times of grief.  I know I should be the one teaching you those things, but you model it for me.  You have changed me for the better. The famous lines from Wicked sum up my feelings perfectly: “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” Inch by inch, you help me progress towards my calling. 

Friends, may you keep inching forward, even in seasons of waiting. May you do the hard work of searching for who you were created to be and then spend your life being true to that person. May you always choose courage over what’s easy; love over fear; hope over despair; empathy over apathy. May you continue to rejoice for others in their joy and hold your people’s sorrow as if it is your own. May you have the courage to sit with and name your emotions, and may you have the strength to keep fighting.

May you envision the most authentic, most beautiful version of your life…and make it reality. May you live with confidence (literally with fidelity). You have the answers inside yourself. May you always trust you. 

Finally, may you know you are loved and valued. May you accept that love and give that love. May you know you are safe, cherished, and wanted. May you experience grace—both to give and to take. May you be connected to yourself and those around you–aware of one another’s needs and willing to both give and receive help. May you live a life full of joy and thanksgiving. 

Thank you for letting me share in your journey.  Thank you for your hard work and your dedication to Union High School.  I love and adore you.  If you ever need anything, I’m just a text or an email away.  My cell is at the bottom of this letter; store it in your phones.  Seniors, I’d love to keep up with you via Instagram (rebecka.peterson)  or Facebook, if that’s still a thing you do.

You are always in my heart; you will always belong here.  You are the reason I do what I do.  

Go light the world, Redskins.

Mrs. Peterson

“Every day may not be good, but there’s something good in every day.”

Chasing

‪So when we’re in a real classroom together, I pride myself in being this 100-pound, little motivational ball of energy that can get a room full of 37 teenagers to stay focused and do math for 60 minutes. ‬

‪It’s exhausting work. I’m never at my desk. I’m doing pirouettes around those forty desks, putting my parents’ ballet checks to good use. Every kid gets checked on every day no matter the class size. That’s my motto. And I’ve always been proud of that. ‬

‪Until distance learning. BOY HOWDY y’all. This is hard. This is a whole different level of teacher shape. And I’m only in the second week (I think? I’m not entirely sure. #QuarantineLife) Some of you have been at this for a month! WHAT is your secret??‬

‪Anyway, old habits die hard (I think that’s the correct American idiom but I never know for sure). I keep chasing my kids as if we were still in the classroom. “Hi! You haven’t started the homework that’s due tonight. Everything ok?” It all feels like I’m getting nowhere, to be honest.‬

Then these:

‪So I guess I’m saying: keep on chasing them, friends. ‬

‪When you can. ‬

‪When you can’t, don’t. We need you whole. ‬

This is temporary. Remember that. We will see our classrooms again.

Also drink your water. Remember you can use the restroom whenever you well please now.

In the midst of a shutdown

The last week has been some of the most meaningful work I’ve done in my 11 years of teaching. It’s not what I want. But “necessity is the mother of invention.” The boredom, the being forced out of a routine, can give rise to beauty. I’m sure of that.

Two weeks ago, I told my kids to have a great spring break. We knew COVID-19 was a threat, but we figured we’d be back together shortly after spring break, if not immediately after.

Little did I know that would be the last time I’d share my classroom with them.

What I would give to go back to the Friday.

We sure wouldn’t have quizzed in calc, I can tell you that much.

Since then, we’ve been on a state-wide shutdown, with distance learning to commence a week from today. My emotions have been all over the map. I’m grieving the loss of time with my kids and the lack of a routine. Yet I’m grateful to live in a nation where I have access to accurate data and good healthcare. And I’m joyous for the extra time I get with my husband and son, all while still getting paid our same salaries.

Yet, I find such meaning and purpose in my work. Yes, it can be an idol at times, I’m well aware and I’m working on it (COVID-19 is forcing me to work on it). But it’s still my joy and my calling. As my husband says: the classroom has and always will be my natural habitat, both as a student and as a teacher.

So, the past week I’ve had to get creative with how to reach my kids. Even though we haven’t started distance learning yet, I felt the need to connect with those who wanted to connect. Because these are unprecedented times. And I knew lots of them would be going through the same emotions I’ve been experiencing. And they deserved to have their teacher by their side still.

I made a promise to them on the first day of school: they belong to me.

I promised I would never leave. I promised they could come to me without ever receiving judgement. I promised to always be a safe place to land.

I never promised perfection.

I just promised I’d show up.

And so help me God, no pandemic can get in the way of that.

So, teacher loves: if you need some encouragement or a virtual hug, this is for you. We signed up to do important work. We are still doing important work. Our work may look different, but it feels the same.

It feels like Love.

So keep loving your kids. Keep sending those messages or emails, whether to one student or whole classes. Keep reaching out with videos and silly pictures. We all need extra love and extra smiles right now.

Keep fighting the good fight. We’re in this together.

Good end

Happy spring break!

I felt like both my courses ended on such a good note today.

At the beginning of the semester, I proposed to my precalc team as well as my principal that we scrap our traditional third quarter test and instead do a full-length (math portions) SAT. Everyone was on-board immediately: most of our precalc kids are juniors and will all be taking the SAT at school next month.

I was dead set on making the kids an appropriate review. “I want it to mirror whatever test we give them,” I said.

After working for about two hours on said review during a PD day with a colleague we finally decided to scrap the notion of making our own.

Instead, the kids spent three days working one full-length test both on their own and together (20-30 min of quiet, individual time; 15 min of collaboration; 15 min of giving answers/taking questions). And then they spent two days taking another full-length test on their own for a grade. We came up with a curve that we felt was fair (no one could make below a 75), and then held our breaths hoping we didn’t just waste five days of instructional time. Actually six: because today we spent the whole day analyzing their results.

Grading them yesterday made me so proud. I was both proud of them for performing so well and proud of us as a team of teachers for carving this time out for our kids.

One of my students said, “Talking these through on the practice days really helped me. I jumped 100 points from my PSAT.” (What.)

Another: “This is so helpful.”

And yet another: “Will we do this again next quarter??”

So. Validating.

Our crazy ideas don’t always work. But when they do—watch out…because there’s usually more where that came from.

*****

My calc kids will be taking a review quiz every Friday from here basically until the AP Exam. Every year, this means no more One Good Thing Fridays. I didn’t feel that was acceptable this year, so I took a cue from Greta and made it a quiz question.

I’ve never read my kids’ OGT before. Most had to do with spring break (rightfully so). Some were deeply personal and genuine. And some made me laugh out loud (Reason Number 4829 why I can never stop working with teenagers).

Love wins

A student made a really big decision for herself this week and asked that I be a part of it. I rallied a principal and counselor to help me.

Her story isn’t mine to share, but I can tell you that the young lady who walked into the office was not the same as the one who walked out. She shed about a thousand pounds of weight she had been carrying for years. She said she felt so light that she got dizzy.

I looked her in the eyes today and said she was my hero.

And we both sobbed.

And we held each other.

When our kids make brave, sacrificial choices I think we all stand a little taller. Their confidence seeps into us like osmosis and we, too, feel we can conquer the world. At least in that moment. When they say, “Enough is enough,” and they stand up for themselves and for all we’ve fought for them to have—we can’t help but feel that courage rise in us too.

This took a village, I should add. A principal found us a place to meet. A counselor opened his office. Another principal covered my class for an hour.

But we changed a life today. I’m certain of that.

As I walked the child to her next class she said something like, “You’re just my calculus teacher. You don’t have to care this much.”

Calculus is just the opening act, Darling. Love is the main event.

And Love wins.

Love always wins.

Fight

Today was our Mr./Miss Union assembly, where we crown one senior female and one senior male as, essentially, being the pinnacle of a Union Redskin.

I have mixed emotions about this ceremony. The optimist in me loves that we celebrate our top students. Not once, in my eight years at this school, have I seen a student on that stage that wasn’t phenomenal in every aspect of the word. I love that they hear the message: “We are so crazy proud of you.”

The pessimist in me wonders what all the other kids think of this assembly. Especially when I hear comments afterwards that make it clear others are at best jealous, at worst hurt. I always notice the lack of diversity on that stage—even though our campus’s greatest strength is all its colors and backgrounds and cultures.

As I waited for the program to begin, I wondered what it’s like to have a brain that doesn’t make everything an internal struggle. Really truly. Why do I have to make everything so difficult? Why can’t I just accept things as-is and move on? Why must I fight?

And then I was snapped backed into reality when our Mr. Union 2016 was introduced as our guest speaker. Chris was and remains one of mine. I had the honor of having him for two years and now he’s headed to medical school to become a pediatric oncologist—the same dream he’s had since I met him six years ago.

You know what Chris talked to us about?

Fighting.

Chris quoted Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Fight where you’re at—Chris told us.

It might not be easy. You might fail. “I hope you fail,” were his words, actually.

Ouch.

But keep fighting.

Oh, how my soul needed those words.

Chris left the stage,and the ceremony started and ended. It was beautiful; I teared up more than once listening to students talk about their friends in a way that was so honest and so real.

As with all assemblies, I had a clear exit strategy for the moment we were dismissed (hi, hello, yes still you’re favorite introvert over here).

I was back up to my room (across campus and on a separate floor) before most of the performance hall had even cleared out, despite my unfortunate assigned seat which was nowhere near a desirable exit.

As I was congratulating myself on a job well done getting back to my room so quickly, I looked up—to see Chris.

We hugged and chatted quickly before he had to dash back to meetings and I had to start class again.

But what a joy.

I’m just a little calculus teacher.

But it’s my kids who remind me: keep fighting the fight. It’s my kids who remind me: we see you. We see you fighting for us.

I’ll fight for them forever.

Encouragers

I read my kids’ letters to their fourth grade pen pals today. The care and kindness some of my students show consistently is so overwhelming to me. The fourth graders have a play they’re getting ready for. In their letters, several of my students talked about how excited they were to come see the play and even more excited to finally meet their young friend. It was so encouraging for me to read. To see my students step into this role of mentor has been such a gift. Sure, some take it more seriously than others. But in general, I’ve loved seeing this side of them.

I love watching them grow as encouragers.

What more could we want from our kids…