Plain old everyday math had always been a bit beyond me. Let alone junior high algebra. In a time when calculators were available but never, never allowed in class or for tests, I usually passed with a “B” but not without a hard run. And – being a word-lover – I hated numbers. Downright loathed ’em. Now, it was — (ugh!) high school G.E.O.M.E.T.R.Y. Loud sigh.
Thin, 35-ish, bearded, wearing specs and casually dressed… he sat on the edge of his desk and leaned in to talk to us like equals. From his first words, I had a strange feeling that if anyone could make me understand this course, he just might. He had a way of making problems seem simple. His cornball puns and jokes left us wincing even as we laughed. And I began to relax. I was doing well… and, dare I say… having fun.
Fridays were my favorite day in his class, for he scheduled something beyond the realm of any thinking mathematician for our last half hour. He read to us. We were flabbergasted, snickered behind our books, gave each other dumbfounded looks that said — is this guy FOR REAL? Because it wasn’t just any ordinary book. It was… of all things he could have chosen for us sophisticated teens… Winnie the Pooh.
At first, it was just a time to relax at the end of the week… like having a sort of nap time when you could stop trying to cram in numbers and information and just take it in…or not. But before we all knew it, we were really listening…hearing more than a child’s story. A lesson on life. Friendship. Hope. On staying young at heart. And putting first things first.
I’d never really read those books as a child. Oh, I’d seen the Disney film or two. But now, I was hearing them read to me. With feeling. He didn’t have a British accent, but he could almost make me hear A.A. Milne’s voice in Christopher Robin and Pooh. I drank in the rhythm of the words, the beauty of the simple (though, I was discovering, not simplistic) writing. And wondered about the man reading to us – a man of great number knowledge – yet… one who loved these written words. Hmm… Maybe not quite as eccentric as he’d led us to believe…
Then…without warning to us… everything crashed. A six-week teacher’s strike, displacing all students to classes taught by rushed-in substitutes. Some, I suspect now, who knew little-to-nothing of the subjects they were forced to teach, basically reducing school to babysitting for many of my classes. Geometry turned from understandable to hieroglyphics for me and I began…literally…to fail. When the strike finally ended, half our semester was over and I was left shaken with the thought that I might just end up with my first class “F.”
But he was having none of that. “I understand that many of you will need to catch up,” he told us, on his return, “and I will work with you as long as it takes.” Patiently, he taught us, went over and over the work, made allowances for our ineptitude. Always making room for Milne on Fridays. And in the end, he gave me a “C” – because, he said kindly (oh-so-like Christopher Robin to Pooh), I know you tried your best under the circumstances.
I was relieved, of course. But, still a bit downhearted. The semester had started out with such promise. I think he recognized my look, for he left me with a wondrous parting thought – and shining eyes – as he added… I think you would have excelled if things had been normal.
These days, I don’t remember much geometry. I use calculators when I need to figure anything. But I do remember the encouragement this man wrote on my life that semester, through his own words and through those of a wise ol’ bear and his friends.
It was the first and only time I found a light of understanding and hope in a math class… from a memorable teacher, fittingly named, Mr. Crossman. And the joy of discovering what he knew so well… wisdom often comes when you give the brain a rest and let your heart soar…
Have you ever found light or hope in an unexpected place, from an unexpected person?
© Pam Depoyan