O is for…

I’ve known for quite some time what O was for – Ordinary. But you know what the funny thing is? I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a “defense” of ordinary or a lamentation for my feelings of being ordinary. Even after all the time thinking about it and knowing this was coming and sitting down to write it, I’m still not actually sure.

What does it mean to be ordinary? What does it mean to be extraordinary? What is the “extra?” I’m actually really curious what people think about these words. Is ordinary necessarily a negative? I don’t think so. I think that I, and most people I know, would choose ordinary if they were really pushed to pick. Maybe we are all ordinary people with a few extraordinary talents. I don’t actually think I know anyone who would flat out say, “yep. That’s me. I’m extraordinary.”

In one of my favorite movies, “You’ve Got Mail,” Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, says in a message to her unknown internet “friend,” “Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life – well, valuable, but small – and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave?” This quote has always resonated with me, and I think it’s fitting here. When I think about my life, I think it’s fairly ordinary, or “small,” though I know some would look at opportunities I’ve had and think differently. (That’s mostly things outside my teaching life, however.) Is it because I like it that way or because I haven’t been brave. I think realistically, it’s both. There are ways I’d like my life to be “bigger,” but when the reality of situations appears, I realize that I’m way better off in the smallness. Brave is not a word that has ever resonated with me, but when Steve Leinwand told me I was fearless this summer, I decided to embrace it and try to focus on living that way as much as possible. I’ll get back to you on that. I did incorporate it into my professional and personal goals at school, though. So there’s that.

Last year at NCTM I had a tough time. At some point I’ve said that to probably everyone who might be reading this. I’ve joked hundreds of times about having a nervous breakdown there (not really). I think this idea of feeling so ordinary, but wishing I *could* be extraordinary, was a lot of the cause. Being surrounded by the people I spend time with at NCTM makes that feeling really obvious. In every meal and conversation and even in every session I was hearing things on big and small scales that made me consider my position in my school and in my community that made me just yearn for something, anything, more. As silly as this sounds, I started to hear about all the different committees and side opportunities and things that people were asked to be part of, and I wondered a lot about, “why not me?” It made me wonder – what is it that makes “them” special and why am I not special  enough to be asked, as well? In addition, I was constantly asked about why I wasn’t presenting and I was frustrated because, despite being quite flattered that people wanted to hear from me and felt I had a contribution to make, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what that contribution could be. As someone who considers herself pretty passionate, that I couldn’t identify one thing I felt I could share made me feel, well, very short of extraordinary. It caused me to really turn inward and consider things. People said that I could offer the perspective of someone who is still in the classroom on a daily basis, as opposed to much of my crowd who are not. I like that idea, but at the same time I couldn’t identify one way in which I felt my classroom was any more special or worthy of sharing than any others. It made me focus on my own limitations and I saw something to worry about, not something to celebrate.

Now, let me say this. I know my students do extraordinary things. I know the things that I share out on twitter make it seem like maybe I’m an extraordinary teacher. But as we all know, and despite others’ efforts to eliminate this feeling, we are more apt to share our shining, extraordinary moments than our “omg wtf” moments. With every lovely compliment I receive, I worry that I’ve created an illusion that I don’t feel I live up to. I guess I’m not really sure what I think an extraordinary classroom looks, sounds, feels like. I know my classes do some special things. I know they are growing to be capable, thoughtful mathematicians and humans, and that’s the most important thing. I guess the truly extraordinary thing is simply that we are given the trust each day to make this happen.

Awhile ago my friend posted this article. I finally read it yesterday. I’m so glad  I did. I’m certainly not a millenial, but it made re-focus my thoughts and made me feel better about my very ordinary life. The quotes that stood out to me the most are these:

“The most meaningful lives, I’ve learned, are often not the extraordinary ones. They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity.”

“Most young adults won’t achieve the idealistic goals they’ve set for themselves. They won’t become the next Mark Zuckerberg. They won’t have obituaries that run in newspapers like this one. But that doesn’t mean their lives will lack significance and worth. We all have a circle of people whose lives we can touch and improve — and we can find our meaning in that.”

Finding meaning in an ordinary life lived with dignity and finding meaning within my circle of people, both my student circle and my MTBoS circle. This is a life that makes sense to me.

Ordinary. I think that being part of such an extraordinary community sometimes makes me feel lost. Like – wait, I don’t fit in here. I’m not extraordinary, I’m just… me. But what I’ve come to realize through tweets and blogs and conversations with so many of you, is that nobody really feels extraordinary. We are all out here doing the work, fueled by our ordinariness, and the desire to someday see ourselves as extraordinary. However, I’m not sure any of us will ever come to see ourselves in that way, because that would mean that we’d “landed” somewhere. And if there’s one thing I know about this community, it’s that none of us will ever be willing to stop growing.


10 thoughts on “O is for…

  1. Casey,
    Thank you for this post. I think you are right that in our heart of hearts, we all feel a little ordinary, which we then translate to “a little less than those around us”.

    A few things I want to share with you in response:

    I first ran into “Casey McTeach” as a suggested follow in my lurker days. You seemed to know all the “famous names” I knew, so I clicked follow. But quickly I saw that you were friends with these people. Your tweets were wam with smiles and hugs and inside jokes. I felt like I was invading a private space without being invited, and I unfollowed you.

    Then I ran into you in San Antonio one morning, because we were both early birds sipping coffee and checking programs on the lobby sofa. I was bravely wearing my MTBOS ribbon, and so were you, so I said hi. We chatted a bit . . . I found out we were central cal neighbors, that you taught 6-8th, which was the curriculum I was focusing on learning better (as an old HS calc teacher who now supported MS), and that you loved Mathalicious activities and MTBOS. I had no idea you were having a bad NCTM. To me you were an ambassador, and you welcomed me in. So I opened my phone and refollowed.

    Back home, when I needed more info about middle school Mathalicious activities, I decided to DM you. You emailed with a wonderfully warm, detailed, and welcoming letter ( that I have saved in my google drive for recurring reference.) Seeing you with the “shiny and famous” among us, made me realize, it’s ok. They welcome ordinary people. Casey is right there. I can join this conversation.

    If you had been less “ordinary”, reaching out would have being harder. Your role as ambassador to the rest of us . . the many teachers who wrongly say “I’m just a teacher” is made possible because you don’t put yourself above. You are willing to be ordinary.

    And you know what, that is the exact thing that makes you extraordinary. You serve a purpose that is essential in making a #MTBoS. And there is not a famous, shiny, committee member, keynote speaker, book writer #MTBoS member who wouldn’t say the exact same thing. Because you know what? They are just ordinary people. But they need you ( and the rest of us ordinary souls) to help people see that.

    Thank you for you – the most extraordinary ordinary person I know.


  2. I love this passage that your friend quoted from George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,”

    This is Eliot’s final word on Dorothea: “Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

    That’s wonderful.

  3. bianta says:

    Casey, I read this and every line, I said that is me, that is me. (except the part about Steve Leinwand) So exquisitely written. Thank you.

    You have many friends and an MTBoS family, and yet you warmly welcomed me. You are a shining star, and part of that twinkle is that you wear your star with humility and let people touch your life.

    Your students are lucky and we know it because like Jen said, my world would be grouchier, less infused, lonelier without Casey McTeach.

  4. mdsteele47 says:

    You must trust that sometimes, there are people who see you more clearly than you see yourself.
    Nothing about your teaching is ordinary.

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