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A Math Teacher Writes / François Bereaud

The first community college course I taught was Introductory Algebra, once a week - Saturday, 8 am to noon. I was given a book, the room key, a sample syllabus, and told when the grades were due. Much of the semester is lost to time, though I clearly remember thinking after the first class, “This is where I want to be” (I was teaching K-12 at an esteemed charter school that year). As the semester moved on, I admired more and more my students’ dedication, many had full time jobs, some had kids, and all were missing weekend activities to learn to factor polynomials.


The next semester I was offered a statistics class in the same time slot. With no concern that my knowledge of statistics was practically nil, I said yes. A full-time faculty member was kind enough to pass me some worksheets from her class so I felt prepared enough. After the first class, one of the students, A, approached me. She told me that she’d failed the course twice before and that this was her last attempt. If she didn’t pass, she’d give up her long-held goal of going into nursing as this course was required for that path. She said she didn’t expect any special treatment, but that she just wanted me to know. I had no idea what to say and she started to walk away. “Wait,” I said. Then I asked how her hard she was willing to work and how I could help her. We talked a bit. It was difficult as she worked full time and I wasn’t on campus other than Saturday. Eventually we’d developed a plan. She’d go over the material ahead of time, email me questions no later than Wednesday, and I’d answer within a day.


That Tuesday night, I got a long email from her. There were lots of questions but it was chapter 1, I handled them pretty easily and emailed back right away. This exchange continued for eight weeks. It got much more challenging for me as I quickly saw how unprepared I was for the material. Sometimes a response would take me hours. On week 10, I received no email. I was relieved to see her in class and inquired during the break. “I think I’m doing okay with the material,” she said. She did more than okay, finishing the class with a B. I hope she achieved her nursing goal.


There was another memorable student that semester. D was loud in the best way. He was never afraid to answer or ask a question, laughed often, and was always engaged. When we discussed probability, I offered anyone in the class of 35 a wager. I bet anyone a candy bar that there would be a birthday match (month and day, not year) somewhere in the group. I told them the odds were in my favor and that they didn’t have to pay me if they were to lose (I wasn’t sure how the Dean would feel about gambling with students). D and a few others took the bet and we started running down birthdays by month. I wasn’t worried when we finished May with no matches. By October, I was considering where to get candy on the cheap. D was grinning broadly and cheering as each month went by. Then we were down to December. I was cooked. Two hands went up, one was D’s. The other student went first and said December 31. D nearly fell over. Then he started roaring. I thought he might hug or tackle me. His birthday was also December 31. The next week he brought me two king-sized candy bars.


As an aside, this problem is a classic one which defies intuition. It’s logical to think that with only 35 people and 365 days, the chance of a match would be slim. Formula aside, the key to the explanation rests on the number of pairs not individuals. With 35 people there are 595 possible pairs (35 x 34 / 2) to match birthdays. I had an 80% of winning (with only 23 people it’s a 50/50 proposition). But, hey, I warned D it was a sucker bet.


A couple of years later, I was again teaching a weekend stats class, this one met for two hours each on Sat and Sun (yes, I was desperate to get a job there). The students were great, as always, and I remember a young woman, J. She told me early on that she was a runner and that she was training for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon just after the end of the term. I shared that I ran also, but only half marathons at that point.


During that spring, I experienced digestive issues which led to significant weight loss. My doctor was unable to diagnose me and I chalked it up to stress (during the week, I was in a high school administrative role which left me unhappy) and I continued to work seven days a week and exercise daily. I suffered in my weekday job and on Sat and Sun was unable to teach for two hours without a bathroom break. Eventually, after losing 25 pounds that I didn’t have to spare, I collapsed in the middle of the week. I was hospitalized for dehydration and finally given a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease. I let the Dean know and a substitute was scheduled for that weekend.


I returned to the high school part time the following week and my stats class the upcoming weekend. I was weak but felt I could get through the two hours each day. I did and after class on Sunday, J approached me. She handed me a plastic bag. I opened it and it was a marathon promo t-shirt. She explained that she’d gone to a running expo after class on Sat, saw the shirt, and gotten it for me. “I know you’ll get better and run one,” she said. I was almost too emotional to thank her.


The shirt was snug and I gained the weight back so it didn’t fit for long. And, three years later, I completed my first year of full-time community college teaching and ran a full marathon.


I’ve now taught for almost twenty years at my college and still get energized before class. My students inspire me, and though the academic cycle churns on, with many names and faces forgotten, some, like A, D, and J, remain.


Mirarmar College, my work home for almost 20 years.

 

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François Bereaud teaches and writes in San Diego.

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