And of course, it wasn't about math at all.
Now, I love math. I love its elegance. I love its clean form. I love that there is one right answer, and I love that there's not much room for opinion. It's either right or wrong. (That tells you a lot about me of course, but nothing I didn't already know to my rueful dismay--but I digress)
The best teacher I ever had was a math teacher in college. He was a graduate student. Most likely he hated us undergraduates who were there to get our science requirements satisfied. He was teaching the second term, geometry, of a three term, year long sequence.
Here's why he was great: he'd write a problem on the board. Then he'd show us how to solve it. He'd explain the guiding principle of the solution.
Then he'd ask us if we understood.
All you had to do, IF you understood, was nod your head.
The trick was, if you DIDN'T understand you could just sit there, looking befuddled.
And he'd explain it again. In a different way. Sometimes with a different problem, or a different graph or drawing.
Then he'd ask us again if we understood, and again, all we had to do was nod.
Most of the easy stuff we got right away. More complicated stuff took two, or even three explanations. And even if I thought I understood on the first pass, those second times usually helped cement the concept.
I learned a lot of geometry that term. But I learned something more important: If what I was saying didn't make sense to people listening it wasn't their fault. It wasn't my fault either, exactly, but as the teacher, my job was to explain it, not make people feel stupid for not getting it.
I was reminded of this recently when, in a fit of madness, I replied to a query letter about a non-fiction book. I explained I needed a couple of things to evaluate a proposal (things not included in his initial query.) One key thing was how to reach the market (platform.)
The query writer wrote back telling me about the size of the market.
I wrote back explaining it wasn't the size of the market, but how to reach the market that I was concerned with.
At this point the querier dropped the ball. He wrote back telling me my assistant should read the query so as to explain it to me. The implication was that clearly I was too stupid to see what he had explained so clearly.
Well, OK, my assistant IS very bright, and I do depend on her to explain a lot of bewildering things to me (most recent explanations: famous tattoo artists, and drummers) but generally I do know what I'm talking about when the subject is query letters and platform.
This query writer made the same mistake a lot of people do: if I didn't understand what he was writing, I was stupid.
I failed in my effort to communicate what I needed to this querier, but in dismissing me as stupid he ended my willingness to explain a third time using a different example. Don't close down communication by dismissing the person who doesn't get what you're saying until you've tried at least three times.
That applies to your beta readers, your query critiquers and anyone else giving you feedback. "You're wrong" shuts down the process. "Let me try again" gives you another shot.
Be smart. Don't assume I'm stupid.