I’ve been teaching math to middle school, high school, and now college students my whole adult life. I started at twenty-two in Camden, New Jersey and have taught subjects from fractions to differential equations on both coasts, and, once, travelled to Nigeria as a guest teacher. It’s an inescapable part of my identity. Now, I’m also a writer. And when I tell people who know me as a math teacher that I write, they invariably look surprised, as if as the notion violates some immutable theorem. Then they often follow with, “So, you write math textbooks?”
I don’t. And almost all of my fiction and essays have nothing to do with math or teaching. In this blog, I’ll reflect on some experiences over my career and maybe bridge the two. Maybe.
Earlier this semester, I was invited to skate with a new ice hockey group. Getting dressed in a crowded locker room with strangers, I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me, one of the goalies. I told him where I worked and he got very excited. About ten years prior, he had attended our college. He asked if I know Ms J, one of our long time English faculty members. When I said yes, we’d worked together in the tutoring center, he spent several minutes effusively singing her praises. He wasn’t particularly interested in English but she’d seen something in him and convinced him to join the Honors Program which he did. As he spoke, I could see the passion, which I know she brings to all her students, come through in his words. When he finished, I asked if I could share them with her (he said yes and I did).
Then he asked me what I taught. “Math.” His face dropped. I gave him a questioning look. He told me he’d taken one math class. He’d expected it to go smoothly, a repeat of high school content. But his professor was mean and he’d failed. He didn’t repeat the class and didn’t transfer. He’s a woodworker now and wonders if he should try a return to school and finish a degree.
About the time the goalie was at our college, I began an extended stint as department chair. Through a long series of student complaints, I began acutely aware of the faculty member he mentioned. He was mean. No other way to put it. Mean.
Last week I gave a calculus test. H, a twenty something Marine veteran, was one of the last students to finish. On his first day survey, he’d written that math made him anxious and that this class was scary. Occasionally that came out in strange jokes. But he sat right in front and was one of the first students in the class to complete a required presentation. The semester was going fine for him.
H handed me his test and I wished him a good weekend. He turned and said, “Did you hear about Japan, the military crash?”
I’d seen a condolence tweet from Biden regarding the eight service members killed. “Yeah,” I said.
“I just found out my buddy was on it. They released the names yesterday. We served together.”
“I’m sorry. That’s really rough.”
He explained to me that the CV-22 Osprey had lots of problems and was known to crash. He had no idea why they still flew it. He paused. “I don’t know why I just told you that.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Again, I’m so sorry.”
He made a nonsensical joke. Then he left.
I looked at his test which I still held in my hand. I’d grade it and assess the calculus. And in a measure, assess my own performance as a math teacher.
But there’s so much more.
FRANCOIS BEREAUD teaches and writes in San Diego.