Middle school is a time when kids start to ask some fundamental questions about themselves. They grapple with big ideas. “Who am I really?,” is not something they utter aloud but it is something that creeps into their world. They grapple with this question as they navigate changes in friend groups and explore new extracurricular activities. They ponder it as they walk into classrooms and dive into curriculum. It rattles around in the recesses of their mind as they walk the tightrope between childhood and adolescence, figuring out the push and pull of their relationship with their parents, trying to grow up but not yet quite ready to do so.

As I get to know students each year, I grapple with the same question about each of my students. “Who do you think you are and who are you really?” To begin to find the answer to that question, I give my students a survey during the first week of school. I ask them a number of questions, but there are two that I always find most telling. I ask them whether they like math and give them a continuum to select (make an x on a line scoring themselves from 1 – I hate math to 10 – I love math). I also ask them whether they think they are good at math and give them a continuum to select (make an x on a line scoring themselves from 1 – I am terrible at math to 10 – I am amazing at math).

This year, the responses from two of my students on these two questions stood out. Both of the students were girls.

The first student indicated that she sees herself as good at math but that she hates it. This struck me because most 6th grade students equate “liking” math with “being good at math” or “hating” math with “not being good at math”. I don’t agree with the coupling of these two things, but I understand why most entering 6th graders tie them together. I find myself wondering why this particular young woman feels this way and wondering how it came about. I wonder if she doesn’t like it because someone made it tedious and boring rather letting her discover its richness. I wonder if she was the only girl in group of boys who made her feel uncomfortable. I wonder whether her experiences as a student of color has impacted her feelings. I wonder what she likes and how I can bring that into our class.

The second student indicated that she sees herself as not very good at math (this young woman has been identified as being “gifted” in math) and as not liking it. I wonder what experiences brought her to this conclusion. I wonder if she thinks that being good at something means it should be easy or if something happened to shake her belief in herself. I wonder if she has somehow gotten the idea that fast means good. I wonder if she knows how deeply she is thinking when I ask her why and she explains her thinking.

As I consider who these two girls think that they are, I wonder if I will be successful in helping them find a slightly different answer to that question. I certainly intend to try.