This text is written by Benjamin ”Beppe” Singer, the host of Hjärnkontoret – a Science show on national television for kids. The text was written for #skolvårens christmas calender, window 20. You can find the original text in Swedish here.
What is X?
The question’s out there and the classroom falls silent. “WHAT IS X, BENJAMIN?” The year is 1990, and I’m in 7th grade in Bergaskolan in Malmö, Sweden. In the classroom, 30 pupils are staring at me. It feels like they’re grinning. “WHAT IS X?” my maths teacher repeats. I feel like he’s shouting the question at me. The room goes completely silent, and all I can hear is my own heartbeat and what I guess are giggles from the top two A-grade students in the class. I panic. I can’t just sit there and stare at my teacher and my classmates. I know they can see I’m freaking out. I’m also a bit overweight and sweat easily – either when I’m pushing myself or, like now, when I’m feeling the pressure. In a squeaky voice, just beginning to break in puberty, I try a figure. “19?”
I feel like I just threw myself off a cliff. What if I happen to be right this time, so the teacher will leave me alone? “19? Have you even listened to what I’ve said today, Benjamin? Have you?” He asks one of the A-grade girls, who of course know EXACTLY what X is. My teacher looks pleased, praises them, and gives me a look that will haunt me for years to come. A look that says that I’m COMPLETELY worthless. A look that almost SCREAMS that I have absolutely nothing to do in a classroom. A look that says “Benjamin, you’re on your own now…”
This is where a 15 year long battle began. A battle against myself. A battle against everyone around me. A horrible feeling of being worthless. I know it sounds stupid, but that glance in my maths class affected everything about how I saw myself and my academic dignity. From that moment, my inner self-resentment festered, and I embarked on a destructive path of rebellion, anxiety, and fighting. The worst part was that I had to find a quick way of silencing these demons inside that were constantly putting me down, and everything I said, did, and thought – and that’s how I turned to drugs. Drugs became the soft pillow where I could rest my head when the thoughts grew too loud. If I’d only had somewhere else to rest my mind, I might not have had to seek comfort in chemical substances. If my parents had only felt good enough about themselves and their relationship, they might have been able to see what I needed. Maybe they could even have offered me what my entire being desperately needed: peace and quiet and security.
Sadly, that never happened. For years to come, prescription opiates were my security. In addition to everything above that describes the feeling I lived with through all those years, I could now add regret, shame, and a fear of being found out.
Still, through all of this, I somehow managed to be productive. I had lots of odd jobs, from being a cleaner to a bartender and a video shop clerk. I also found another way of venting my frustration: music. I became a drummer and played in several punk bands, touring in Europe and the US. I experienced things most people can only dream about.
But the feeling was always there. “You are WORTHLESS, Benjamin.”
One day in a small tour bus on an American highway, my mind numb from touring life – exhaustion, poor food, too much drinking – I realised that I had to make a change. I needed more. I didn’t know then, but that day in that crowded, stinking little tour bus, would be the beginning of something bigger than I could ever have imagined. It was the beginning of what’s got me where I am today, writing this to you.
When we came back from the tour, a late December night in my bedsit on S:t Pauligatan in Malmö, I switched on the TV. That’s when it happened. I saw a show I’d never seen before – CSI. A really exciting show about good-looking people who solved crimes in a lab. To music by Van Halen. That’s when I made my mind up – I wanted to become a forensic scientist. Yes! Now, dammit! God, nooooo!!!! I didn’t have the credentials. I’d blown maths and the other classes I needed.
There was only one thing to do – KOMVUX adult education. I signed up for a year of basic science studies, for the course credentials needed in order to study chemistry in Lund. Fortunately, no-one wanted to become a chemist back then (hardly anyone does now, either), so if I could only pass the courses needed, I would probably be accepted.
I hadn’t set my foot in a school for years and felt that same awful feeling sneaking up on me as I approached KOMVUX Kronborg that spring day. I was sweating, and I don’t know how many times I turned in the door before deciding to go to the first class that day – MATHS!!!
I sat down next to a woman who looked like she was feeling as terrible as I was. I chatted to her a little about why she was there and how she felt, and fortunately she was right there with me – filled with anxiety and self-despair. Like me, she had no idea why she’d even bothered to sign up for this course. It was a lost race. We would fail. We were worthless.
Finally, the teacher entered the classroom and introduced himself. His name was Mats, and he did something really strange. Before talking about maths, he walked around the room and said hi to everyone. I saw him putting his hand on people’s shoulders, asking them their names, asking if they were OK. He came closer and I could feel the flush in my cheeks and the sweat breaking out on my forehead. I remember thinking “You bastard, you’ll never get to me. You can’t break me, because there’s nothing left to break. Sucker! Hah!”
When he came up to me, he put his hand on my shoulder, like he’d done with the other people in the class, and asked for my name. “Benjamin,” I said in a shaky voice. And THAT’S when it happened. He looked at me and said: “Hi. Well, I’m Mats. It’s great to see you here. That kind of makes me proud.” It wasn’t as much what he said, but how he said it, and even more how he looked at me. In his eyes, I saw empathy, warmth, humbleness. It’s like he was saying “It’s cool, Beppe, I get it. I got your back!”
Thanks to the feeling that Mats gave me, after a few months of re-programming my thoughts, I got my first Pass on a maths test for years. I remember how I felt. I was crying on the inside. It wasn’t an immediate feeling of being worthy, but an instant reward that didn’t come from chemical substances. I’d done it! So I dared to venture onto other pages in the maths book and got a B on my next test. And then an A. Over a year, I completed three maths courses.
I’d defeated my inner Katla dragon. I’d blown up my inner Death Star. All thanks to a simple look from a person who really cared. I did go on to study chemistry, but ironically ended up working as a maths teacher. I did that for five years. During all of those years, my pedagogical approach was trying to recreate the moment I’d had with Mats with all students I met who had the EXACT same inner HELL. I still think like that. No matter what I do.
In 2011, I got the opportunity to host the kids’ TV science show Hjärnkontoret in Swedish TV, and I had the honours of – together with the editorial crew – going to Göteborg to receive the 2011 Enlightener of the Year award.
Can you imagine it? Me, the utterly worthless, useless, incompetent Beppe, being the enlightener of the year? It’s with deep humbleness and gratitude I can look back at what I’ve been through and how I got to where I am today.
There are thousands of students in Swedish classrooms who go through the same thing as I did. Students who have lost hope and faith in ever being able to accomplish anything. Students who end up on destructive paths and who, all too often, won’t be able to leave them.
I know that we all work our asses off to make school a better place for our students. We reform, evaluate, change, revolutionise, flip, digitalise, and so on. All of those things are incredibly important elements in creating a sustainable learning environment, but the most important key is people like Mats. Teachers who fight for their students’ right to the joys of discovery and independence. Teachers who sacrifice more than what politicians will ever understand or appreciate in terms of salary, to have their students be able to leave the classroom proud with their heads held high.
YOU are the ones I want to thank in this letter. There are MANY of you out there who manage to stay afloat in this ocean of documentation demands in order to create the security and joy we’re all screaming for.
I no longer freak out over the question “What is X?” and that’s thanks to you. I am forever grateful and will, for the rest of my life, fight for the same thing that you’re fighting for: to be able to look the students in the eye and say “I got your back!”