While perhaps I could be a willing proponent of literal back biting (haha), the whole concept of “backbiting”, as in badmouthing someone who is not present (or, as I define it here, complaining about something rather vague only to have someone with whom I was speaking create a drama about it and turn it into backbiting – even if there was no text or subtext to indicate that), is not my thing. I have suffered the consequences of, but not permanently learned a lesson from, confiding in all the wrong people – or just by being opinionated and unabashed about opening my mouth. The most understanding ear is often attached to the most treacherous snake. The problem comes when you realize it too late. I am not really in a situation like that although I suspect that some of my complaints are making the rounds (but not in a malicious, backbiting, drama-creating way), but I have not yet pinpointed who the “culprit” is, so still freely sharing my opinions and frustrations. (In such scenarios, images of the film Raise the Red Lantern spring immediately to mind.)
I don’t know why this train of thought makes me think of a teacher I had in junior high and high school. Maybe because we ended up making fun of her behind her back all the time? Maybe because, in the course of a fairly short span of time, people can change, and you (and they) want to preserve you exactly as you were when you met them. In this case, the teacher in question taught my pre-algebra class when I was about 12. She was an incredible teacher who made all manner of mathematical complexities seem simple, assigning everything very methodical approaches that were so grounding and solid that they carried me through algebra and various other mathematical pursuits long after that class had ended, and I was exposed to much less gifted math teachers. You know what they say about getting the basics right. She left the junior high to teach at the high school, and I relied completely on the fundamentals she had taught, but little by little, each step I made in math was a downhill step. By the time I hit geometry in 9th grade, I was lost and had no idea what was going on (not to mention that I have no ability to conceptual shapes and angles and could not begin to write a proof about how an angle as big as my fingernail was the same as some angle that was as big as a house).
This teacher had her quirks, of course (ultimately why we made fun of her), from the laminated posters of Neil Diamond plastered all over her classroom to the what I can only refer to as “whorehouse chandelier” earrings, to her love for expressions like, “Yowza!”. She was her own character. Her self-satisfied attitude and even the “I am cool” voice she adopted in her teaching was enough to sicken me. But you can’t really argue with a virtuoso, particularly when she clearly not only knew her stuff but knew how to convey that information in a neat and palatable way. (I still can’t quite erase the memory of her smug expression and tone when she would show you some easy way to solve an equation and say, “All you have to do is plug… (pause for effect) and chug.” My response: Ugh.
But people change. I am sure she was still a math-teaching whiz by the time I got to the high school and landed in algebra II/trigonometry. She just did not apply herself. It was in fact only because of her mastery and teaching skill that I could manage the more algebraic elements of trigonometry. But for me there was WAY too much geometry mixed into trig (just seeing a webpage about trig has me petrified), and I was completely derailed. And by this time, the once careful, methodical, albeit arrogant, teacher, had taken on all kinds of extracurricular duties, like coaching the track team and god knows what else. She created all kinds of barriers between herself and the students, such as insisting that during class, she would only accept two questions on the homework. As a result of all these limitations, I got more and more lost, and by the time I began failing exams, it was too late. She, reflecting on her memory of my identity as a “good math student” from our previous time in the same classroom, called me in for a one-on-one chat and basically asked, “What happened to you?” (She was also not impressed by my brief pseudo-goth appearance, which seemed to make her think I was on drugs.)
Frankly, I wanted to ask the same thing, so far was she from her teaching roots. “What happened to you?”
Ultimately we were, in those three short years, in completely different places in our lives. When she finally saw how much I was flailing about and bothered to ask me if something was wrong and whether she could dedicate any time to help me further – because suddenly she was more than willing to answer as many questions as I had – it was too late. I was so far gone that I did not even know how to ask questions about what I did not understand.