The Day the Earth a Stood Still (While Teaching Calculus)

Do Your Calculus or Be Destroyed!

Do Your Calculus or Be Destroyed!

All the while growing up as a young boy, I felt I was good at only one single, solitary thing; math and memorization associated with math.  My mom claims that as a two year old I could identify every card in a deck of playing cards.  I have no memory of this.

My earliest memory of thinking that I was better than most at math goes back to second grade where we played a game in class whereby the teacher would pit us up against each other in a flash card competition.  One person would move around class to each individual whereupon the teacher would show a flash card.  If the person moving around the class responded, the person would keep moving, onto the next victim.  If the person seated answered the math flash card problem first, then that person would get to rise up out of his or her chair to become the new floater.  When the floater got to me, I would always win to become the new floater.  I never lost and I recall after my moving all the way around the entire class, the teacher would make me sit down so that someone else could take a turn.

Ah….Glory days in the second grade.  🙂

Umm..yea, he kinda' looked a lot like this guy

Umm..yea, he kinda’ looked a lot like this guy

I remember math being a bit more difficult when I got to the 7th grade.  My teacher was a guy named Mr. Chaney.  Mr. Chaney had a habit of picking his nose in class while we were taking a quiz or test.  I guess he thought no one was watching or he just didn’t care.  It was difficult to ignore a thin looking, much less attractive John Waters sitting on a high chair up in front of the class, legs crossed with his right arm stretched around the top of his head, picking his nostril from the opposite side.  Perhaps that was his way of creating a diversion, you know, separate the men from the mice?  Class, let’s see if you can concentrate on this pop quiz while I dig for buried treasures.  No wonder only two of us scored A’s that year in his class, (Me and Peggy Pettit).

I’m not sure why Mr. Chaney felt the need to announce this fact to the class mid year, but he did.  I felt slightly embarrassed, but also I remember feeling gratified – see people?  I’m not just a wise-cracker!  We were seated alphabetically in that class.  I sat directly behind Barbara Taylor, someone I had tried (unsuccessfully) to get to like me in the 5th grade.  Barb was extremely shy and very smart.  After learning I was one of only two A’s, she finally opened up a bit to me and would consult with me often about how to perform various problems.  This is my first recollection of my enjoying the act of teaching.  I liked looking at the problem and listening to Barb’s view of the problem because it’s the first recollection I have of trying to figure out how ‘the student’ was thinking and then my attempting to translate the solution into terms I thought they would better understand.

My next big mathematics ‘coup’ occurred in the 9th grade where I was told I had the second highest average in the class.  First highest was, of course, Tina D’Ercole.  Tina was “brilliant”.  There’s just not a better word.  When you were younger, did you ever meet one of those people who you just sensed, or knew, that the person was destined for something really great?  For me, that was Tina.  She sat next to me in that class, but we didn’t really get to know each other very well except for one day when we had a nice discussion about ROTC.  I had begun considering it as a way in the future to get into college and she also had an interest.  She told me that both of her parents were in the military, (or had been, I can’t recall).  I’m sure I was considered a dweeb by someone like Tina.  She was beautiful, intelligent, serious.  I was always goofing off, trying to see what I could get away with in class in attempts to make others laugh.  Tina went on to become one of the first female graduates of the US Naval Academy.  (here’s a link). I went on to write stupid stories in a blog site….sigh, still seeking attention after all these years.

I hope she doesn't mind, but she made an impression on me.

I hope she doesn’t mind, but she made an impression on me.

I didn’t really help anyone else in math for another year.  To tell you the truth, I don’t suppose anyone would have benefited from my instruction in the tenth grade due to my poor habits (read me).  By the eleventh grade however, I began turning myself around and the grades started getting back on track.  I aced Algebra II in the eleventh grade and took several opportunities to help my class neighbors with their problems.  I really liked showing people how to solve problems.  I began thinking more and more that I would like to be a teacher, but my parents had gone through a bankruptcy and I also knew we didn’t pay teachers very well.  When you grow up knowing you don’t have much money, getting money becomes an overwhelming driver.

In my senior year, I absolutely loved my high school trigonometry and calculus class!  Sounds pretty nerdy, doesn’t it.  I don’t know, but I guess what I loved about math was that once you figured out what the rules were, you could basically work any problem by applying the same math principles against the problem being worked.

My big teaching debut occurred in the twelfth grade, Calculus class.  One day, around mid year, the teacher was leading us through the solutions to some problems he had assigned to us the previous day.  One of the office flunkies, (common term of endearment for the student office helpers), came to class and interrupted the teacher, saying he had a phone call.  (Kids, this was well before the days of cell phones).  It had to be an important call for them to interrupt a class, otherwise they just took a note and passed it to the teacher so they could return their call at a break.

I’m not sure why Mr Riddick singled me out that day.  There were several kids in that class I thought were as smart or smarter than I (notice the proper use of grammar there…uh, huh, I are smart).  Maybe he thought I could use a boost of self confidence or something?  But when he got interrupted, he told us to continue going through the problems.  “Mr Wyatt?  Would you like to come up and show the class the solution to the next couple of problems until I return?”

What??  Who...ME??

What?? Who…ME??

Who me?  I didn’t say that, but I could feel my face get blood red from embarrassment.  I could feel classmates looking my way, some in astonishment.  The only people in that class who sensed I had any math skills would have been only the couple people sitting directly next to me, those that I would have helped occasionally.  But I got up.

I was nervous.  I could feel the heat coming off of my face and my underarms.  Some people began talking and ignoring me, but maybe half were paying close attention, (looks of puzzled bewilderment would be a more appropriate depiction).  I got through it though.  I don’t even remember what kind of problems we were reviewing, probably something like simple derivatives.  All I remember is that, (thankfully), Mr. R returned shortly, before I finished reviewing how to do the problem.  I was up at the chalk board when he walked in and so I went to hand him the chalk – “Finish, Mr Wyatt”.

And that was my teaching debut.  I finished, handed Mr R the chalk and quietly went back to my seat.  It lasted all of 5-7 minutes.

A couple of weeks later, we received our ACT scores.  I had not done all that well in the English or even on the overall composite, but I had scored a 35 on the math section.  At the time I didn’t even know what a good score was or even if it was all that important.  A guy sitting next to me, Brent, asked what I had scored on my ACT.  I gave him my composite score, but then he asked what I scored in math.  So I told him.  His reaction, (I thought), was a bit smug.  He said “35?  I only had a 32.”  It was the way he said it that struck me.  He made me feel like he didn’t believe me and that there was no possible way I had scored higher than he did.  I didn’t say anything further.

I remember this conversation so well because it was a pivotal moment for me.  It was the moment I started believing that I might actually belong in college along with all of the other kids in class who did nothing but talk about where they were moving to and what colleges they were attending in the Fall.  Previous to this conversation I just didn’t give it much thought because I didn’t have a clue as to how I was going to swing it.  Growing up is never easy.  We try hard to hold onto what we were and what we are and we wonder, (and often fear), what’s in our future.

As far back as junior high school, I can remember thinking that I would enjoy being a schoolteacher.  As far back as high school though, I was aware that teachers do not earn a lot of money.  When you grow up in a household without a lot of money, getting money becomes very important.  It took me many years to finally graduate from evening college and I never did become a schoolteacher.  All of my working career though, I have loved to teach.  I am always in a learning mode and I love to share my learning and knowledge with others in an effort to increase their capabilities.  It just makes me feel good.  What I love most about the act of teaching is watching someone who doesn’t understand the something being taught….and then watching the transition as they’re beginning to ‘get it’.

I don’t know why Mr Riddick chose me for my 7 minutes of mathematical fame that day.  We didn’t have a relationship and I even had to look up his name in my high school yearbook.  I like to think that perhaps he saw that I needed help; help realizing that I was deserving of attending college, that I could make it.

Many years ago, someone trusted that I could stretch and prove to myself that I could do more than what I previously thought I was capable of.  Maybe this single 7 minute act taught me that we can always break our own paradigms about ourselves.  I was to be given a couple more breaks like this in my professional career, the next one occurring less than 3 years later when I was given my own fast food restaurant to manage, making me the second youngest store manager in the country at the time.  People want to improve themselves.  They want to raise their capabilities and to grow.  They simply need guidance, to be taught and given a proper challenge.  We all become better when we teach.

So teach…..and grow.


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