Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Write something in the YOUNG ADULT or TEEN genre (06/07/07)
TITLE: Algebra's Ambassador
By Beth Muehlhausen
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Mr. Sedgwick’s room feels like a prison. The mile-high walls, featuring cracked avocado-green plaster, wear giant aprons of black slate. I hate those blackboards.
But I’ll never hate Mr. Sedgwick.
Every day when we file into algebra class he stands in the hallway by the door, his crippled legs tottering back and forth, back and forth, as he struggles to keep his balance - just so he can greet each of us by name.
“Good morning, Suzanne.”
“Good morning, Mr. Sedgwick.”
His stringy black hair, what there is of it, seems shiny and slick. When he smiles, some of his teeth wear dirty brown flecks that look like chocolate frosting.
In spite of his idiosyncrasies, every day when I pass through the threshold of Mr. Sedgwick’s room I end up glued to his magnetic, sparkly eyes. Some playful, understanding, kind little nymph lives down deep inside them where a tender heart generates that light. Even though I hate math and never know what operation to perform when working a story problem, those eyes promise not to condemn me when I totally mess up. In fact, they seem to want to help.
Trouble is, I feel like I almost always mess up in algebra class.
Today is one of those days when I want the old wooden hallway floor with its worn paths to open up and swallow me so I can hide, deep in the cool, dark bowels of the furnace room. However, I walk toward the algebra room holding my book and folder tightly, slip through the door, and casually glance at Mr. Sedgwick. His eyes hold me as I look back over my shoulder.
“Hello, Suzanne. Did you complete your homework?”
I feel the knot rise up in my throat. I wrestled with the assignment for a long time the night before and never grasped the underlying principles – although I eventually finished the problems by default.
“Yes, Mr. Sedgwick, it’s done.”
My eyes want to stay there in the safety of his gaze, but they turn with the rest of my body and I walk to my seat with a pounding pulse. If only he won’t call on me today!
The bell rings its loud “rrrr-iiiiinnnnnng” and Mr. Sedgwick shuts the door with its rows of twenty little glass windows. I’m trapped for the next hour.
“Students, we’ve been studying various kinds of story problems most of this grading period. Hopefully this last assignment helped you summarize some basic foundational concepts. Suzanne, would you please come to the blackboard and work a problem?”
I feel my heart drop. My feet try to resist, but by a sheer act of will I force them to hold me upright and then walk me to the front of the room. Clomp, clomp … they feel like boulders.
“Alright. Class, I’d like you to compute along with Suzanne at your desks while she works here at the blackboard – then we’ll compare our work. Here’s the problem.”
Mr. Sedgwick licks the forefinger of his right hand once, flips a few pages, then licks it again and flips a few more. “Here.”
My head feels hot all of a sudden, and the lights seem to grow dim. Next thing I know I stagger and grab for the chalk tray.
Thud. The dizziness overtakes me and I crumple onto the floor.
Then I see a strange, fuzzy grayness and hear lots of chattering in the background. The other students in my class buzz and scuff their feet; I can see their feet! Then I look up at the fluorescent lights glaring from the water-stained ceiling, and Mr. Sedgwick’s face appears.
“Suzanne! Are you alright?”
His eyes bore deep holes into my own as he tries to kneel and hold my head in his hands - but his crippled legs deny him.
“I’m afraid, Mr. Sedgwick – I’m so afraid – I don’t understand algebra at all.”
Tears of grief rise to choke me and blur our connection.
“That’s alright, Suzanne,” he whispers. “I know what it’s like to struggle – even to fail. And I also know what it’s like to succeed. You’re a gifted editor for the school newspaper; you don’t have to be an excellent algebra student.”
I see myself reflected in Mr. Sedgwick’s eyes in that moment. I see frailty mixed with success; I see authenticity and transparency; I see mercy and, most of all, grace.
In that moment, I see a living, breathing representative of God.
I see hope.
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