by Daris Howard
All 100 seats in the classroom were full that first day of the semester. The class was called “Intermediate Algebra”, and everyone was required to take it or test out.
I structured my class so that I lectured for half the hour in a side room for those who wanted a lecture, and then I joined my team of tutors for the other half to help individual students.
Math is never the most popular class, and there was a lot grumbling as I laid out the semester requirements. To finish, a person needed to pass 8 tests. Though no one was allowed to fall behind, they could work ahead and finish early if they wanted to. In all of my ten years teaching there, no one had ever finished early. But that semester would be different.
A young man from a foreign country dove into the material like I had never seen anyone do before. Instead of working through a section in two days, he would finish four or five sections every day. Within two weeks he was almost done with what would take the rest of the students 15 weeks to complete, and he did it with nearly perfect scores on every test.
I was stunned by this, and asked him if he had already had the class before.
“Oh, no,” he said in his thick accent. “I not have any algebra at all.”
I was surprised. This class was actually the equivalent of high school Algebra 2. A person should have at least taken the first algebra course before this one. I knew how much work this class would be without it, so I questioned him further, and he assured me he hadn’t had any math besides basic arithmetic.
“Is this the only course you are taking, then,” I asked.
He shook his head. “Oh, no. Me signed up for 20 credits.”
This time I was so amazed I could hardly talk. A full load is 12 credits. A really full load is 16. But to take 20 and finish an algebra course in 2 weeks, having to put in extra time to do it, was absolutely phenomenal.
When I asked him why he would take so many credits, he spoke enthusiastically. “Me just want to learn! Is so exciting!”
He then told me that in his country, there were two castes of people. In the lower caste, the young people were taken out of school at about the equivalent of our sixth grade. They were put to work doing manual labor. Not only were they not given the opportunity to learn, if they tried, they could face retribution.
He said that when he was taken from school, he was assigned to work on a crew that was digging a canal by hand. When he finished there, he worked digging fields, preparing them for planting. He said he wanted so badly to be learning instead, but was not allowed to.
He continued. “But finally, one day, I do some small thing that make it so me get American sponsor so come college here.”
“And now,” he finished with a happy grin, “the hard part is to choose what learn first. So many things is hard for me decide. Me want learn everything!”
His excitement made me ponder. What if I was not allowed to learn? Would it mean more to me than it does? Do I take my easy access to books, magazine, and innumerable other resources for granted?
But there was one other burning question I was dying to know the answer to. So, when he finished the course a day or so later and came to check on his final grade, I asked.
“By the way, what did you do that got you an American sponsor?”
“Oh, nothing that big, really. I just won medal in Olympics.”
And with that he left me, again in shock, as he happily hurried off to his next class.