The teacher was non-plussed. She pursed her lips and sighed, underlining her frustration. I could feel every nuance of her irritation as she leant over me.
Her patience was at an end.
She had been trying to show me a mathematical principal and in doing so had asked me to move the pointer to the right. Right and left meant nothing to me. They were just words. Space and structure, and the experience of being a body in the world oriented in a particular way - that I could understand, if she had bothered to explain it to me.
I wasn't the learner she wanted. Approaching my desk to explain something, she hovered over me, seeming to expect something from me that I just couldn't come up with. She had made my 8 year old self so nervous in her focus and imposition, that I couldn't think straight, and holding onto the arbitrary dimensions and orientations humans impose on space was beyond me in that moment. I wasn't trying to be difficult. I just couldn't think. And she was making it much worse, bending over me and imposing her anger and frustration onto me like an approaching storm.
It was frightening.
Maths had been my bugbear ever since I had a teacher who threw dusters and chalk at students and grew so angry at innocent questions that she shook the inquirer until they quivered in fright. Nowadays she would be "redirected", but back then teachers like her were still an unwelcome part of the system.
I remember hanging onto the wall, desperately trying to avoid being pulled out of bed and sent to school on a day when I knew I was going to have to face the maths dragon, Mrs S. Just seeing the green maths bag with its protractor, compass and set square made me quake. To this day if I see a similar coloured or shaped bag, my fears come flooding back to me.
No wonder I was maths phobic.
Later, in my high school years, I had trouble seeing the blackboard. I dreaded the moment when my maths teacher would call on me to do a simple arithmetical calculation in my head and give the answer. It was torture - what if I got it wrong? Frozen with anxiety, I had no hope of giving any answer, let alone the one my teacher seemed to want.
We just don't know how many students are experiencing the rigours and structure of the classroom as anxiety provoking, dreading every new school day and hiding at the back of the room, trying to avoid prying eyes. Being called upon to give an answer in front of class can be particularly daunting for students who suffer from performance anxiety.
And for some young people, school is a nightmare.
Being bullied, not fitting in, judged harshly or having expectations placed on them that they just can't meet. These are all difficulties that many students find overwhelming, sometimes insurmountable.
Schools are regimented environments and many students just can't manage the confinement and routine of a day sequestered into the same dreary four walls. The enforced social interaction and claustrophobic, unyielding environment of large modern schools can turn some high achievers into lost souls, daydreaming the school year away - or worse, school refusers, spending their formative years hiding in their bedrooms.
Students drop out of school for lots of reasons. Often they are having trouble fitting in. "School refusal refers to severe emotional upset experienced by a child at the prospect of attending school that can result in significant school absence. School refusal is different from truancy in that the child is staying at home with the knowledge of the family and despite their best efforts to enforce attendance. Children who refuse school do not typically engage in antisocial behaviour that is associated with truancy, such as lying, stealing or destruction of property. School refusal is also different from school withdrawal, a term used to refer to circumstances in which the family keeps the child at home for various reasons (eg to support a family member who is ill)." (From the Kidsmatter website.)
Without sensitive support these students can be lost to the system entirely. We need to remember that not everyone can fit into the demands of the schoolroom, although the expectation is that they do. With the recent increase in funding for mental health training for teachers and extra support for schools, we can hope that some of the "lost souls" of the system can find their way back. But its best to keep in mind that many young people who "fail" at school are themselves failed by an inflexible system that can't meet their needs and requires them to conform in ways that they just can't manage.