Apples for my teachers

My loyal readers will know that yesterday I received my first shipment of math and science DVDs from a company called The Great Courses. Using every ounce of self-control I have in my scaly little body (that is to say, I had to put the DVDs where I couldn’t see them), I waited till I was finished my work last night and then dug in. I opted to go for math first, because that’s what I like best.

So first we take x and divide it by y over 2.....

Suffice it to say, I then had the devil’s own time tearing myself away from the television and actually going to bed. These things are wonderful, I tell you. The professor for my math DVD is a fellow named Arthur Benjamin, who favours wacky ties and teaches at the oddly named Harvey Mudd College. But never mind all that — the guy is brilliant, and a completely engaging teacher. In just one evening I have been taught how to rewrite numbers in different “bases” (including the maddening but ubiquitous Base 2, or “binary,” which eluded me completely in Grade 6), and how to multiply in my head large-ish numbers ending in 5. (Friends — prepare yourself to be dazzled. Run away while you can!)

I am hooked.

And the reason I’m hooked is not only that I like math to begin with (thanks to attending a high school that didn’t happen to believe that girls and math didn’t mix), but that the guy is simply a very good teacher. I know that the “tsk…kids these days” crowd like to harrumph about how teaching shouldn’t have to be entertaining, that the little blighters should just sit in their damn seats and speak when spoken to, grumble, grumble — but no. Half the battle of learning any subject is the presentation. I had a piano teacher who hit my fingers with a stick and I learned nothing from her; I had another who stopped me during a Beethoven sonata to point out the Conservatory window at a beautiful thunderhead that was gathering in the distance — I did a recital for him. Go figure.

Anyway, this all made me think of the teachers from whom I’ve been blessed to learn over the years. And that made me want to send them all a huge Thank You for taking my rabbity, unfocused little adolescent mind (and graciously ignoring my clumsy, sweaty adolescent carcass) and molding it into something that today passes for an intellect.

In no particular order, they are:

Mrs Fowler, who taught me Grade 11 math and algebra. She was one of these frank, no-nonsense but very friendly teachers who didn’t buy into the tired old “math is hard” schtick. She laid it all out in ways that a garden gnome could have understood, and patiently led us through our paces. The “tough guys” on campus would slouch into her class — and strut out again at the end of the hour, blinking in amazement that they (yes they) had managed to do algebra. If you “forgot” to do your homework, Mrs Fowler would politely show you the door — no arguments, no excuses. You missed class and, actually, that sucked. I never saw a student do it twice.

Mr Cockburn (“CO-burn, guys”), who taught Grade 13 English. Class was in a drafty, crappy old portable at the side of the football field, but never mind. Styrofoam cup of coffee in hand, nicotine-stained mustache wagging madly, he led us through material that is otherwise used to cure insomnia. I never saw him sit down. Our end-of-year project was to write our own piece of detective fiction — I was living in a group home at the time, but insisted that they make an “office” for me in the basement, with my little typewriter on a table, so that I could work on it. I got an A+++ and a hug from the teacher.

Miss Mayhew, who taught us all Latin. Yes, Latin. And we LOVED it. People still rave about Miss Mayhew’s classes. My friend Chris and I want her, still, to adopt us. She took a subject that would send most people screaming from the room and turned it into a series of courses for which there was a waiting list to enrol! I remember Latin Bingo (with chocolate bars as the prizes), actual plays spoken in Latin (I seem to remember exclaiming “Eheu!” [alas!] as I performed “surgery” on a hapless classmate…), and the infamous Garbage Can Patrol. Charming as Miss Mayhew was, there were two things she would not stand for, and those were talking in class (guess who once got told off…) and chewing gum.

Say it with me: "What's so funny about Biggus Dickus?"

There was one repeat offender who just never seemed to get it, and suddenly Miss Mayhew’s lecture would dwindle to a halt, her eyes would bug out of her head, and she would begin making exaggerated cud-chewing motions with the entire lower half of her face before grabbing her garbage can and stalking down the aisle to her quarry and barking, “Spit that out!” Best thing: in Grade 9, we were all quietly told (usually by upper-form students) that if we made it through to Grade 13 Latin, at the end of that year Miss Mayhew would a) let us read poetry by Catullus (dirty, dirty stuff!) and b) show us slides from the House of the Vetii, which was rumoured to be lavishly decorated with statues and mosaics of Actual Penises. What can I say — she was true to her word.

Mrs Stewart, my high-school gym teacher, who was cursed with trying to teach my totally uncoordinated adolescent self how to do things like sink a basketball and play hockey. Hopeless. Finally, she hit on the idea of having me be the timer and scorekeeper for our junior girls’ basketball team — at least I could be involved that way and (in theory at least) not hurt myself or anyone else. I was having a wretched time at home at this point, unfortunately, as my mother was losing a battle with mental illness, but Mrs Stewart actually phoned her and insisted that instead of having to report home directly after school each day, I be allowed to stay and work with the girls’ team. Whatever she said worked because I did the job for that entire year and really loved it.

Mrs Robbins, my Grade 3 teacher, who taught us our times tables (that pointer! Those number wheels!) and, noticing that I was doing things like writing cookbooks for pets in class (really), streamed me into our school’s newly minted Gifted Program (then called the Advancement Classes). To be sure, there were disadvantages to being hived off into the “Egghead stream” (like getting to Grade 9 and being able to recite part of The Three Little Pigs in Chinese, but not knowing what the capital of Canada was…) but I like to think it saved me a great deal of boredom and aggravation. (That’s something we all get enough of later on in office life, no?)

Father Tom Collins (really!) who taught first-year English at my first university. The class was at 8 a.m. but no one was ever late because this guy was funny as hell. He wore a full cassock and strode manfully up and down the aisles like a giant bat, orating beautifully in Olde English or whatever we were studying so that we could hear what it sounded like. He recited almost everything to bring it fully alive, and I do believe his finest moment came during “The Lady of Shallott“: at the point where the Lady goes down to the river, looses the ropes on a handy boat, lays herself down in it, and prepares to drift away to her death, Father Collins cleared his throat, reached behind him, pulled an imaginary outboard-motor rip-cord, and proceeded to roar back up the aisle as The Lady of Shallot, northern Ontario style. There was not a dry seat in the house.

If you look closely, you can just see the rip-cord.

I could, of course, go on and on and on — I haven’t mentioned Mrs Lockyer, or Northrop Frye, or Mrs Wilson, or the dozens of others who will doubtless spring to my mind at about 3 o’clock tomorrow morning. I’m one of the few people you’ll meet who loved school; not only was it a refuge from a crappy and chaotic home life, but I loved it in and of itself. I was blessed to attend good schools with excellent teachers who, themselves, loved knowledge and learning, and knew how to instill that in us (and these were public schools, I hasten to add!). Some kids are not similarly blessed, and that is a topic for another blog, on another day, as it breaks my heart.

But for today, thank you to all the teachers in whose classes I was privileged to sit as a goofy, squirming, brace-faced kid. Thank you to the teachers I know today (yes, you too, Harold, and you too, Tamara!) who roll with new technology and battle helicopter parents and “entitled” brats and obscure faculty rules and increasingly confusing expectations (“am I a teacher? Am I a psychologist?? Why didn’t I just study dentistry??”) to do the most important job of all, which is gently but firmly corralling rabbity young minds and “leading them forth,” which is, after all, the true meaning of the word “educate.

And now, speaking of educating, it’s time for me to edit a few more chapters of this textbook (really) before I make myself a nice cup of tea and sit down once again with Professor Benjamin and his mighty formulae. This evening: the joy of prime numbers.

I can’t wait. And I am not making that up.

–Smiter out.


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