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Maria Sestito

Maria Sestito is the public safety reporter for the Napa Valley Register.

One teacher can make or break how you feel about a subject. I’ve been lucky in my life to have many great teachers, especially in my English and writing classes. My luck has continued as I’ve found mentors in journalism, including my editors at the Register.

But there is one teacher who sticks out to me for the opposite reason. My experience with her completely shattered my relationship with the subject she taught: math.

I started thinking about this teacher again a few weeks ago when I realized something that shocked me – that I want to learn coding. It is a course offered in the journalism school and, after a mini-session on it, I think I could be good at it and (more shock) could even like it.

How could I be interested in coding when I don’t like math? How could I ever think I’d be good at it?

Now coding isn’t the same as math, but there are plenty of things that I associate with being math-like enough to steer me away from it. Things like engineering, architecture, statistics – just looking at a map makes me think of math. Coding is just another thing that I’m not going to understand because I don’t think like that.

But this is a myth. You can be good at both English and math! (Mic drop.)

For years I’ve had this sneaking suspicion that my reluctance at math was really an insecurity linked to my 10th-grade geometry teacher. I had started class a week late and she never let me forget it. She told me that I would never catch up and, after a while, I think I stopped trying. I felt like she punished me in other areas of school life that she controlled, including whether or not I could be in the honor society. I hated the way this teacher made me feel – I remember crying in class – but figured she must be an unhappy person and, for some reason, had chosen me as a target. I got through the class, steered clear of her and, even though I graduated with a 4.0, have always thought I was lousy at math.

Oh, but before graduation, she gave me the honor society sash…

I told this story to an acquaintance recently – he’s a math teacher and spoke passionately about how he tried to build confidence in his students. Many students, he said, just think they can’t do it, but it isn’t true.

That’s how I felt despite my good grades. I told him that I can’t imagine how someone who struggled more than me may have felt about the subject.

And, the reality is, I was good at math. I’m a good navigator, calculated percentages all the time while shopping for deals, and manage my very limited budget like a badass.

In eighth grade, I actually tested higher on the math section of standardized tests than the English. As an aspiring writer, I remember that this upset me. Again, how could I be good at math if I’m going to be a writer?

These thoughts and insecurities can completely change the course of a student’s life. I like where I’m at, but I bet that teacher doesn’t know the anxiety and torture she put me through. She probably loves math yet managed to deter me from taking math classes in college – I took linguistics and logic – and almost deterred me from signing up for this coding class.

At 29, I’m managing to see through this lie I’ve been telling myself, but I worry about today’s students. Even this passionate math teacher I spoke with admitted that he had unknowingly discouraged a student to take a more difficult math class – she took it, did well, and, years later, confronted him. I could tell he felt regret over this, but what could he do about it now?

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Maria Sestito is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. Jersey Girl runs every other Sunday. Follow her on Twitter at @RiaSestito or email her at msestito@napanews.com.

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Maria Sestito is the former Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She now writes for the Register as a freelancer.