Negative Result

Back in school, I wasn’t a genius – but was definitely above the average. Well, I am still not a genius – but not so sure about still being above the average. Yet, school programme was boring to me. My brain wanted much more, so I used to read books. Yes, good old paper books – there were no iPads back then.

It was one of those lessons where we literally learned to add 2 and 2. Well, actually, it was a bit more advanced lesson: we learn to subtract 1 from 2.

Somewhere along the lines, our primary school teacher said that it is not possible to subtract bigger number from a smaller one. Literally, it was «It is not possible to subtract 2 from 1», – she said.

Was I showing off? Maybe. But I couldn’t hold it. «Yes, it is possible. It will be minus one», – I said.

«You’re right, young man. But this is outside of our current programme, it is beyond what we are supposed to learn today» – was the answer I was expecting. However, her reply was different.

«You’re wrong. It is not possible»

«But negative numbers do exist…» – my voice lost confidence. Going against teacher’s word wasn’t an acceptable behaviour back in my childhood.

«How can I subtract two apples from one», – she insisted.

«You’d owe one apple», – suddenly someone confidently said from behind.

It was our class genius. Real genius. He always took the back row – because he didn’t like sitting. He used to stand, or rather, to lean against cupboards behind the back row. Nobody knew why he was standing all the time – but it was often seen as a rebellious action. He always kept his hands in his pockets as if he gave very little care about what’s going on around him.

Like me, he was reading well beyond the school programme – and that’s why he also knew about the negative numbers. Very soon, he will be transferred to another class, couple of year ahead of us – but unfortunately, I’ll never hear about him again. But on that occasion, he was on my side.

Yet, our teacher insisted that it was a nonsense.

That guy didn’t argue – he simply said it and then shut up. However, there was something in his voice that I picked up. It was the confidence, how he said it. As if he was saying «I know the absolute truth, and I don’t care what sort of bullstory you’re telling to these idiots». Interestingly, but I did read that emotion, and decided to stay low too. For some reason, I trusted his voice expression more, than direct words of our teacher.

After school, I approached my dad and explained the situation. Luckily, I was so confident that negative numbers existed, so I didn’t question the knowledge I got from books that apparently I wasn’t supposed to read yet.

«Dad, is she really not aware of negative numbers? Or she simply didn’t want to confuse the rest of our class», – I asked. My dad looked puzzled. – «I sincerely hope it’s the latter», – he replied.

Our first teacher was a much-respected woman. I know that being primary school teacher is a very hard job. And yet – I don’t understand why she never talked to me about that incident. Therefore, her last word on that subject was «You’re wrong. Negative numbers don’t exist».

No, I didn’t stop respecting her after that. Credibility and trust – that’s what she lost on that day. From that day, I started doubting and double-checking everything she was telling us.

That was a very good lesson for me of what not to do during my classes. From one hand, I have no hesitation telling my learners that «Some parts of your work are crap», or «My socks are laughing», or «I’d give you P45 for that submission». Of course, I then also explain what would be the better way of solving the task (while trying to avoid terms like «correct answer» and «the right way to do it»). My class is not Vegas, yet whatever happens in my class – stays in my class; and the more learners’ errors are discovered and corrected during my class – the less is left to be discovered by their bosses and colleagues. And they understand and appreciate it. Well, they have no choice anyway.

At the same time, saying «You’re wrong» in front of the whole class became a strict taboo. Even if that person is wrong – there are other ways of phrasing it. Especially in the industry where simply there are no completely right or completely wrong way of solving a task, and very often there is no such a thing as a «correct answer».

Story told by a very good friend and a colleague of mine