An Ode To Math Teachers

As I near my thirtieth birthday I’ve begun to reflect upon the people who have made a real impact in my life and helped make me who I am today. I recently recounted an old school story to somebody and that really got me thinking about it so I’ve gone back to that conversation and expanded upon it for the purposes of this piece. It involves two of my high school math teachers, one I have remained friends with until this day and the other I hadn’t thought about for a long time but, thinking about it now, had a larger impact then I ever really knew.  Let’s start with my long lost algebra teacher in high school, Miss Sherris. Now math has never been, nor is likely to ever be, my strongest subject. However, I usually managed to pull decent grades in the subject. That is, until  my freshman year of high school, which most assuredly was the academic nadir of my life.

I struggled right out of the gate in her algebra 1 class and by the time the first half of the year had ended, I had scored a 46 on my mid-term and was miserably failing with an overall average of 47.  I can’t properly describe the shame I felt walking home the day I found out, knowing that I’d have to tell my dad I was failing math. I had never failed any subject in school before, never even came close. I had always prided myself on good grades and, now this combined with a D in physical science and suddenly my academic existence was turned on its head. Friends there are few things in this life I hate more than feeling, or being made to feel, stupid.  To his credit my father didn’t berate me, he was more interested in solutions to this problem but I could feel the disappointment and that stung something fierce.  After the holiday break I went to Miss Sherris looking for some help righting the ship, and the response I got truly surprised me.

Not only did she want to help, Miss Sherris made a point of having me stay after school every day so I could do my homework right there and she could work with me on it. She even allowed me to take my quizzes after school so I wouldn’t feel the pressure of having a time limit. She was relentless, even wrote me up for the one day I decided I wanted to skip out. I ended up with two days worth of morning detention as a result and at the time I was pissed. It was also a pointed lesson in personal accountability that resonated with me and still does today. At the end of the year, by some serious hard work, effort and perhaps a minor miracle, I had brought my average up to a 65. Yeah, a D wasn’t anything to write home about but I’ll tell you, I was damn proud of that D because I worked my ass off to get it. Ironically I ended up in her algebra 3 class my senior year and from day one, she had me follow the same program and this time, I ended up with a solid B for the year.

Miss Sherris  taught me that I was accountable for both my successes and failures. She put in all that extra time and never gave up on me, never assumed that I was apathetic or dumb because I struggled with mathematics. That was the first time in my life where I set a specific goal and learned that it was possible to meet it if you put in the work. But you know, it’s especially the accountability part that I’m most grateful to her for today. As I said before it was an essential lesson that has served as both a badly needed reminder during those weaker moments in my life since, when I forgot about accountability, and a bedrock upon which I base my belief in personal accountability through my years as a scheduler. The one regret I have from that story is I never thanked her. I’ve tried to look her up on the Verona school directories and asked other old teachers of mine but have yet to track her down. That is something I would really like to do, to thank her for the incredible dedication she showed and let her know what a difference she made in my life.

The other teacher I want to talk about had a different sort of impact on my life, but no less important. I remember the first day I met my old geometry teacher Mr. Schul. It was an incredibly muggy, early September afternoon. It was the last class of the day and all the kids could think about was getting out of that place. Suffice to say we were not the most cooperative bunch that day and Mr. Schul was in no way shy about vocally admonishing us.  I didn’t know the man and was genuinely concerned that I was going to spend my sophomore year under the thumb of a strict, no nonsense disciplinarian. Well sometimes we get first impressions wrong and I’m happy to admit that I did.

Again I started slow out of the gates in regards to my grades and was growing increasingly frustrated. Mr. Schul employed a new, slightly different tactic to get me more engaged with the learning process. In essence I became his comedic foil for the class, a Gilligan to his Skipper if you will. Geometry is a subject that, in the wrong hands, can be stiflingly  boring. He used humor to get his students involved and, dare I say, excited about being in his class. I’ll give you an example. One day he handed back a test which I had gotten a 70 on. That certainly wasn’t bad by my standards at the time but I was a bit disappointed and he could see that, so he decided to levy me a challenge. “I’ll tell you what Mulcahy, I will bump your grade up five points if you can keep your hand raised until the end of class.” I accepted that challenge, and for forty five minutes I held my left arm aloft. Periodically he would look over and chime in, “Yes Sean?”  “Geeze you won’t shut up today, you been drinking coffee?” He would also genuinely call on me to answer questions just to make sure I hadn’t tuned out. By the end of that class I had to use my right arm to hold the left up but dammit I got those five points!

Mr. Schul was also very generous with his time, particularly in the mornings before school started. I found myself in there every morning before school, usually talking about sports (or, specifically during baseball season his undying enmity for New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada). Then over the course of the conversation he’d ask how I had done with my homework and we’d look it over to see if there was anything I had questions on or didn’t quite understand. It was a brilliant strategy and the results spoke for themselves, as I improved from a 65 in freshman algebra to a 71 in my sophomore geometry effort. Again, nothing to throw a ticker tape parade over but it was tangible improvement that I could (and would) build off of. More than the academic improvement though, Mr. Schul’s classroom became a safe haven for the rest of high school. I could go in there any morning before school (and usually did) and find an environment where I was welcomed, where I was valued and where I was accepted for who I was. And at that point in time, it was a real life saver. Mr. Schul and I have kept in touch over the years, shared several memorable rounds of golf and continue our tradition (or smack talking rivalry) of competing against each other in the March Maddness brackets every year. Most importantly, I count him as a trusted friend.

Teachers really can make a world of difference in a kid’s life. Look behind just about any successful adult and there is undoubtedly an educator who made an impact on their lives. And yet, somehow, many dedicated public school teachers around this country are underpaid and under valued. This I cannot understand. Outside of immediate family, who wields more influence on a child’s life than their teachers? These are the people who are tasked with shaping the next generation of Americans and I can think of few more important jobs than that. I can’t imagine where I would be if not for the efforts of teachers like Miss Sherris, Mr. Schul and the many other teachers who imparted their knowledge to me along the way. And so, to the many educators who generously gave their time and talents to help me become a reasonably smart, functioning adult, thank you.