David was in my freshman algebra class. There were two kinds of algebra classes at Lowell: the accelerated track led to Advanced Placement Calculus by senior year, and the regular track, which I was teaching, didn’t. The students in my class hadn’t scored high enough on Lowell’s math placement exam to get into the accelerated track.
David didn’t stand out at first. He was quiet and sat toward the back of the room. He didn’t raise his hand a lot; he rarely volunteered to come to the board to solve problems.
But I soon noticed that every time I graded an assignment, David had turned in perfect work. He aced my quizzes and tests. When I marked one of his answers as incorrect, it was more often my error than his. And, wow, he was just so hungry to learn. In class, his attention was rapt. After class, he’d stay and ask, politely, for harder assignments.
I began to wonder what the heck this kid was doing in my class.
Once I understood how ridiculous the situation was, I marched David into the office of my department chair. It didn’t take long to explain what was going on. Fortunately, the chair was a wise and wonderful teacher who placed a higher value on kids than on bureaucratic rules. She immediately started the paperwork to switch David out of my class and into the accelerated track.
My loss was the next teacher’s gain. Of course, there were ups and downs, and not all of David’s math grades were A’s. “After I left your class, and switched into the more advanced one, I was a little behind,” David later told me. “And the next year, math—it was geometry—continued to be hard. I didn’t get an A. I got a B.” In the next class, his first math test came back with a D.
“How did you deal with that?” I asked.
“I did feel bad—I did—but I didn’t dwell on it. I knew it was done. I knew I had to focus on what to do next. So I went to my teacher and asked for help. I basically tried to figure out, you know, what I did wrong. What I needed to do differently.”
By senior year, David was taking the harder of Lowell’s two honors calculus courses. That spring, he earned a perfect 5 out of 5 on the Advanced Placement exam.
After Lowell, David attended Swarthmore College, graduating with dual degrees in engineering and economics. I sat with his parents at his graduation, remembering the quiet student in the back of my classroom who ended up proving that aptitude tests can get a lot of things wrong.
Two years ago, David earned a PhD in mechanical engineering from UCLA. His dissertation was on optimal performance algorithms for the thermodynamic processes in truck engines. In English: David used math to help make engines more efficient. Today, he is an engineer at the Aerospace Corporation. Quite literally, the boy who was deemed “not ready” for harder, faster math classes is now a “rocket scientist.”