Circles: Stories about coming back around

This week we present two stories about times in which everything came full circle.

Part 1: In the middle of a school day, science teacher Brittany Beck passes out in her classroom, leading her to reflect on what got her here.

Brittany Beck is a science teacher at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Brittany is also her school’s Coordinator of Student Activities and lives for event logistics, fundraising and trip organizing, and the facilitating of many student groups including Women in Science Club and Student Government. You can follow Brittany on twitter at @brittanbeck. Brittany has been an MfA Master teacher since 2015.

Part 2: Inspired by her grandfather, Kitty Yang becomes a math teacher, but soon realizes she misses being a student.

Kitty is a doctoral candidate in mathematics at Northwestern University, studying dynamical systems and ergodic theory. She grew up in California and went to college in New York, and attending school on both coasts, is now enjoying studying the midwest. She spends her non-math time tap dancing, running, baking, and watching baking shows. She is also a labor activist, as an organizing committee member of the Northwestern University Graduate Workers.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Brittany Beck

A little over five years ago, it was the middle of the school day and I was driving to the emergency room with my principal.  Neither of us quite knew what was happening with me.  What I did know is I wouldn’t have been there if I wouldn’t have passed out in school.  I wouldn’t have passed out if I had slept at all the last two nights.  And I wouldn’t have been awake the last two nights in a row if I wasn’t, like many of us in this room, a self-martyred teacher. 

Filling up medical history forms is tricky for me, though.  My maternal grandma had 23 biological kids, 16 of whom survived to my childhood.  I have, no exaggeration, hundreds of cousins.  When you have that many family members, you're bound to have a number of diseases on that form checked off. 

I was around while my aunts discussed their breast cancer, my uncles discussed their heart issues and my cousins and I discussed the various childhood body issues that popped up as we grew up. 

As a ninth grade health teacher now, though, there are certainly many things I never discussed with my rural Catholic Missouri family.  Drugs and alcohol, no.  Sex, heck no.  Social, emotional or mental health, let us pray. 

As a youngster, I have lived in a world, and there were certainly enough of us to create a world, where I thought everyone had the same socialized roles and was related to me.  Technically, as a biologist, I know that’s kind of true. 

I can track my love for Biology and Health back to my parents, both of whom are expert scientists.  With them I spent hours exploring our giant backyard, time with my dad in his chemical plant mixing chemicals, and checking in fictional and real patients at my mom’s hospital.  Science, like my family, seem to be everywhere. 

My parents decided that all my time doing science could be done a year early in kindergarten in a more formal learning setting.  I still remember the day that I went into early kindergarten testing with my mom.  We walked into the testing site and a likely very nice teacher introduced herself to me and to my mom, which clearly meant she was not a Beck or a Blomquist I recall feeling fear and confusion that there was a world outside mine that I didn’t know existed. 

I peeled myself away from my mom and I went and I sat in the front table and I just remember my heart was racing.  I was feeling paralyzed and I just kept repeatedly wiping my palms into my usually empowering Disney princess shirt.  Belle for her books and Ariel for her hair were my idols. 

I still remember most of the questions she asked me about the alphabet and about basic shapes and, yeah, I could read that that word was ‘apple’ and could even point to the green apple that she had hidden among the other fruit on the board.

The problem was I would not and, now believe, could not speak.  She tried and tried and finally gave up.  I remember when she said it was time for the test to be over, it felt like a giant weight lifted off my tiny shoulders and I could run back to the safety of hiding behind my mom’s legs.  I'd like to go on the record now, though, and say that that was my first public stand against standardized testing. 

After I protested that test, my mom told me that I would be going to an awful place, preschool.  She told me that if I learned how to talk to people then I wouldn’t have to go to school anymore.  Logically, I spent the entire first day coloring alone at the table waiting for her to come back. 

After a couple of weeks of preschool, all the other kids got to file into the brightly lit cafeteria while the teacher who wore these giant, thick earrings so much so that I still, in my head, call her Ms. Onion Rings.  Ms. Onion Rings pulled me into the shadows of the hallway and she sat me down at a chair did the teacher squat to get at eye level and asked me, a four-year-old, why I wasn’t talking with anyone and why I didn’t seem to want to make any friends. 

Brittany Beck shares her story with us on our home stage show in NYC at Caveat in April 2018. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Brittany Beck shares her story with us on our home stage show in NYC at Caveat in April 2018. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Of course I cried.  Ms. Onion Rings then let me go back into the cafeteria where I stared down at my lunch of bright yellow corn and mashed potatoes and those Dino chicken nuggets that I usually love to mush together and eat but that day just tasted like salty tears. 

For the other shy, classified kids in the room, I’m sure you can recall a similar experience.  It was the first time I was shamed for not knowing and not really even wanting to know the steps to social interaction. 

The next time early kindergarten testing came around, I forced those answers out of my mouth and I hoped that a real school would be better. 

In elementary school, my parents tried another force-me social experiment, dance classes.  I kicked and screamed through my first couple months of those classes but, admittedly, started to love it.  If the challenge was to move my body to make my heart race and to sweat, I didn’t have to be concerned about the body-paralyzing, heart-racing, sweaty-palm experiences that were still happening to me.  Plus, I didn’t have to talk to anybody while I was dancing. 

Later on, I joined chorus.  Singing still isn’t talking.  The play, their lines, not mine, and really found my stride in something big at my high school, show choir. 

While preparing for a performance in the ninth grade, my choir director, the late and great Dave Ward said something along the lines of, “Even if you don’t feel like it out there today, fake like you do.  Fake like you're happy.” 

Between that pep talk and the sci-fi fantasy books that I've been reading relentlessly, something clicked.  I could become the extroverted, non-paralyzed character that I so desired by completely and totally faking it.  I faked it so much that my default personality became an outgoing character that always seemingly said everything with confidence.  I was, with intention playing the role of a sheep in a wolf’s clothing. 

The thing is, when you're acting, you become the person that people want you to be instead of the person that you actually are.  I can remember countless times as a young adult feeling the strain of being someone else that I wasn’t and becoming paralyzed as a result of it. 

In church, in a roomful of people that I'd known for a decade, my heart would start racing and I wouldn’t be able to sing anymore.  In a meeting for an internship that I loved, I wasn’t even able to introduce myself because I felt like if I spoke that I would tip sideways like a paralyzed board. 

I learned to not order fragile glasses at coffee shops because I would sit there with the for-here cup and I would feel like everyone was looking at me.  So when I went to bring the cup to my face, I would shake so much I wouldn’t even be able to take a drink. 

In college, in the student union building, I was sitting with a sorority sister that, for some reason, I really wanted to impress.  And one of my super-nerdy science friends came up to talk to me about the organic chem labs that I'd been teaching at the time.  The peppy sorority role inside me wanted to make a flippant joke about the rumor going around campus about the frat boys that synthesized moonshine in the organic chem labs and then taking the shot in the bathroom. 

The intense, hyper-nerd in me wanted to brag about how confident I was that I could synthesize acetylsalicylic acid, aspirin for the non-chem teachers in the room, that was so strong that it would instantly cure those frat boys’ hangovers.  The problem was, at the time, the roles for me were so contrasting that I just mumbled and feigned sleepiness until one or both of the parties left. 

As a biologist, I’m aware that we go through very distinct phases and stages of development throughout our life.  I feel like I go through very distinct and contrasting phases and stages within each second of interacting with someone. 

Five years ago, I was assigned a co-teacher that, for various reasons, both my fault and hers, I could not get along with.  Having her in the room with me every day was a hostile audience member that I just couldn’t perform for. 

In early October, I knew an observation was coming and I'd been up for two nights in a row over thinking all of our conversations and interactions and the plan that we had for that week.  The next day in school, I was sitting talking with the kids and suddenly the world went black.  I woke up and I remember feeling really tired and very confused but, honestly, my first thought was, “I’m only a second-year teacher in this building.  What’s the proper protocol for when you pass out in class?”  I still don’t know. 

I told everyone in class that I was okay and I made it to the bell and then I stumbled down the stairs, three flights of stairs to my principal’s office.  She looked at me and decided to take me to the hospital. 

Brittany Beck shares her story with us on our home stage show in NYC at Caveat in April 2018. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Brittany Beck shares her story with us on our home stage show in NYC at Caveat in April 2018. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

In the hospital, they ran lots of tests, but the real test came when the psychiatrist came in.  She asked me if I'd been stressed recently, and I just laughed.  She told me she thought I'd been having panic attacks, she told me to call my mom.  She sent me home with a psychiatrist appointment, a prescription for Xanax and a couple of pamphlets about something that, until that point in my life, I had never heard of - anxiety disorder. 

I went home, took the next day, thank fully a Friday, off of work and tried to calm my fried brain.  I also tried desperately to not Google everything that I possibly could about anxiety disorder. 

My mom took an emergency flight out and we tried to treat the next couple of days like a surprise tourist trip instead of a trip that you take to make sure that your daughter is okay.  Over those couple of days, a couple of things that I'd never heard from my mom emerged, like “Well, your dad and your grandma were always super nervous like this too.”  And, “You Beck kids always strove to do your best and beat yourself up if you didn’t.” 

In fact, when I told her I was going to be giving this talk and the topic was my anxiety disorder, even this week her reaction was, “Are you sure that you want to talk to people about that?” 

But the thing is, I’m sure that fighting against the stigma of mental health is part of the non-faked part of me.  It’s why, when I went back to school, finally, I made the next unit of my academic writing class all about mental health and then worked with a team of teachers at my school to develop a year-long health course.  I know I would be a different person today if I'd learned about and de-stigmatized mental health disorders and I don't want my students to have the same ignorance that I did. 

Now I try to make time in my life to find alone time to recharge and to try to find avenues to perform, to sing, to dance and to breathe.  I've made good friends both inside and outside of school and occasionally have the privilege of forgetting that I struggle with anxiety disorder at all. 

That said, in my day-to-day life I’m not really sure what role I’m playing anymore, and I’m finally starting to think that that’s okay.  Thank you.


Part 2: Kitty Yang

My grandfather was my first math teacher.  We used to have almost daily math lessons when he used to live with us.  Sometimes on my schoolwork but, often, just whenever he decided it was time for me to learn. 

One of my fondest memories was one summer when I was about ten when we explored Pi.  He told me this is a number that’s different from the other numbers that we've talked about and it comes from circles.  If you take any circle and you divide the circumference by the diameter, you'll always get 3.14159 etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. 

So armed with a tape measure, we ran around the house looking for circles.  We found a bowl and a plate, my grandmother’s hair curlers, an empty can of chocolates and we traced them on pieces of paper so we had a bunch of circles. 

And that’s what I loved about doing math with my grandfather.  It was very hands-on and we got to the heart of the math.  So we measured the circumference, we divided by the diameter and we got a very strange list of numbers none of which matched what he told me we were supposed to get. 

Then he said, “Well, if you look at the circles we drew, they're not great circles and our tape measure only goes up to half-centimeter so we have some rounding and some human error.” 

I learned two lessons that day.  One, what Pi represented and, two, that experimental data is never perfect.  I think that day I became a pure mathematician. 

We continued our math lessons through high school but my grandfather would always take copies of my notes and my textbook back home with him to Taiwan.  I always felt a little pang of guilt that he was much more studious than I was.  I suspect that, back in Taiwan, he didn’t have very much to do and he was happiest when he could share math with me. 

No one else in my family liked math.  In fact, with my little brother he had to bribe him in order to sit down and pretend to listen to math.  It was like a reverse tutoring for you.  But with me, he found someone who could appreciate thinking and talking about math like him. 

Even though I really enjoyed math, I didn’t major in Math in college.  I was good but I wasn’t anywhere near the best.  My high school regularly sends students to regional and national competitions and I thought that you had to be that good to major in math.  So, on the very practical advice of my uncle to just go be financial analyst and make a ton of money, I went to business school and I interned at a big insurance company. 

Kitty Yang shares her story with us at our show down in partnership with the American Mathematical Society (AMS) in January 2019. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

Kitty Yang shares her story with us at our show down in partnership with the American Mathematical Society (AMS) in January 2019. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

Honestly, I was pretty good at what I did and I kind of ate up all the praise.  I loved people telling me I was really good at what I was doing.  But after two years at the same company, I felt kind of bored.  I felt like I could predict what my life would look like and I didn’t want that.  I thought about it and I felt like my personality and my love of math would make me a pretty good math teacher.  And all four of my grandparents were educators and I felt like there was a real honor in carrying on their legacy. 

So I applied to a teaching program and I found a job at a pretty good magnet school in Brooklyn.  Because I didn’t have to worry about losing my job over test scores, I could experiment a little with my teaching and have a little bit of fun.  From my grandfather, I knew that you couldn’t reach every student, but if you kept at it, you'll probably reach someone at least once. 

One of my favorite students was a brilliant artist and reluctant mathematician.  She often doodled in class instead of doing the problems I so lovingly picked out.  So in an effort to engage with her interest and trick her into studying, I asked her to draw a cartoon for me of the math that we were learning. 

I shouldn’t have done that.  She ended up drawing Ms. Yang and her army of theorems, postulates and isosceles triangles.  She had drawn me as a witch riding an isosceles triangle broom attacking students with math problems.  I was kind of asking for it.  But I realized that she may not remember what the triangle congruence theorems were, and honestly I don't blame her, but she knew what a counter example was and why that’s important.  You know what?  The witch in me counted it as a win. 

Just like my grandfather, I've learned a lot more about Pi since then but I carry with me the excitement and love for that moment he first taught me what Pi was.  And as I got better with teaching, it still felt like something was missing.  I was really, really eager to do math problems that I hadn’t picked out myself and so, in an effort to do more of that, I went to a summer program catering to people who devoted their lives to math from elementary school teachers to undergrads to college professors. 

Even though it was really nice to meet so many people who enjoyed math as much as I did, I felt really out of place.  In the morning sessions with the teachers, we got a list of problems and all I wanted to do was race through them.  I did one and I wanted to do the next one but I was chastised by my group mates who said, “We want to make sure that everyone is on the same page and do you understand that and do you agree with that?” 

Kitty Yang shares her story with us at our show down in partnership with the American Mathematical Society (AMS) in January 2019. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

Kitty Yang shares her story with us at our show down in partnership with the American Mathematical Society (AMS) in January 2019. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

As a math teacher, I would really encourage that, but as a student, I just wanted to do the math problems.  So I finally could empathize with my students about the evils of group work. 

But in the afternoon session on Reimann geometry, I also didn’t feel like I fit in.  I couldn’t follow a lot of the technical details and I was way too self-conscious to ask any questions.  Even though it was expected that that teachers wouldn’t be able to follow everything, I still felt really disappointed in myself and almost ashamed that I had failed a math course. 

But that feeling of wanting to do math but not being able to, I couldn’t handle it.  So I decided to apply to grad school.  That was such a terrible process.  By then, I didn’t have a lot of support.  My family had moved back to Taiwan.  My grandfather had gotten colon cancer and my mom went back to take care of him.  I was only able to visit over winter break once a year. 

I felt a lot of guilt not being there more.  I don't know what I could have done if I were there but I would have liked to make my grandfather some tea.  I would have liked to take him to his doctor appointments, just make him a little bit more comfortable. 

Also, I had been out of school for five years by then and so I had to email my professors and hope that they remembered me and could write a decent letter of recommendation. 

I also sent a list of the schools I had decided to apply to, and he emailed me back and he said, “Why are you aiming so low?” 

Honestly, I had picked out the schools with the latest deadline so that I could buy myself some more time to procrastinate on my personal statement.  Don’t tell my students I did that. 

But somehow, I was able to work through those couple of months teaching and studying and applying and I got my first acceptance to Rutgers in February.  When I got the email I was in charge of study hall with a bunch of seniors.  It was really special to be able to share with them this process because they had also been applying to colleges and so I could share with them the excitement and the relief of having been accepted somewhere. 

I also emailed my mom immediately to let her know the good news.  She passed it on to my grandfather who, at that time, was lucid enough to understand what I had done.  I'd like to think that he's really, really proud of me. 

He died in March that year, right around Pi Day.  There's a Chinese funeral tradition where we burn paper money and objects to pass along to the deceased to help them in the afterlife and my mom burned a copy of my acceptance letters to Rutgers for me. 

For some reason, my grandfather never pursued math academically.  The family lore is that he got into Columbia but couldn’t go for financial reasons.  But on a recent trip back to Taiwan, I found some pictures of him standing very, very straight with his tie flapping in the wind on the steps of the Columbia campus, so maybe part of that story is true.  I’m not sure.  But I do know that if got a chance to go to grad school he would have really loved it, because I love it now.  Thanks.