“I need three volunteers. You’re going to be Carly. You’re going to be Bo. And you’re going to be Lawrence.”
It was my first day in Mr. Stein’s sophomore Geometry class. And I had just been given a giant name tag that said Lawrence. What was going on here? I thought this was a Math class. And I hated Math. I mean, I was pretty sure it was a Math class. There was a poster of Einstein on the wall. There were a bunch of numbers written on the board that looked suspiciously like Swahili to me. And the guy at the front of the room sure looked like a Math teacher: sweater vest, glasses, pencil behind his ear. But this couldn’t be Math class, because I was enjoying myself. What kind of voodoo was this guy using? I’ll tell you what kind: the current love triangle on “Days of Our Lives,” the hottest show among everyone at my all-girls high school.
“Now Bo, you use inductive reasoning to win over Carly’s heart. And Lawrence, you use deductive reasoning. Let’s see who comes out on top.”
Aside from maybe wanting to throw the battle just a little, because OF COURSE Carly belonged with Bo…duh…, I was into this. I had just come off of a semester with a different Math teacher whose idea of entertainment was personifying triangles: “You just go right up to that triangle and say, ‘Excuse me, but are you Isosceles or Obtuse?'” Meanwhile, my friends and I sat in the back, rolling our eyes. “I don’t know, but I’m totally asking Scalene Triangle to the sophomore dance. He’s such a rebel with all those sides of different lengths.”
Mr. Stein was different. I knew it from that very first class. And for the first time ever and never since, Math was in the running with English and Art for my favorite subject in school. But regardless of where it placed, Mr. Stein himself very firmly secured the gold medal for “favorite teacher.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t have stiff competition. I had very few “bad” teachers in high school, and quite a number of extremely excellent ones. But those English and Art teachers whom I adored had an easier go of it. Since I loved the subjects they were teaching, they didn’t really need to bring as much to the table for me to have gotten anything out of the experience. Mind you, they always brought some mad game; but I would have liked their classes regardless. They could have conducted every period as if they were moderating the S.A.T.’s, but I still would have had Sir Gawain and Green Knight, self portraits, The Handmaid’s Tale, and stipple drawings to keep me entertained. Math was a whole other story. Not only did I not enjoy it, I didn’t always understand it. It took an artist of a different kind to make me do both.
It sometimes boggles my mind how much I remember from Mr. Stein’s classes versus how much I remember from any other Math class I ever took. With the exception of very vivid recallings of first grade popcorn math, placing kernels from margarine tubs onto red felt squares, I don’t know that I remember any specific Math lessons from grade school or college. I do remember that my Statistics professor wore Birkenstocks sandals every single day, even when it snowed. And I had a seventh grade Math teacher with the very unfortunate name of Mrs. Dickman, who quit halfway through the year because my class tormented her and ate an alarming number of Nutty Bars during her class. But I don’t just remember that Mr. Stein dressed up as a human golf ball every Halloween or teamed up with one of our Art teachers during the Mission Week non-talent show to
butcher sing a rousing duet, such as “I Got You Babe” or “A Whole New World.” I remember experiences from his classes.
He wrote on every possible chalkboard surface. This meant that we began class facing the front of the room, but he would inevitably tell us to “make a 180,” and we would all turn our desks around to the back board filled with equations. He had protractors at the ready underneath every single desk, every single day…just in case we needed them for emergency measurements. We did a Coke versus Pepsi challenge in Statistics. We dropped things out of the school windows to measure speed and velocity. And then there was the crowning moment for every student who was in Mr. Stein’s Geometry class: we made bridges out of cardboard, straws, and straight pins. Bridge testing day was practically a national holiday at my high school. We would all hand over our bridges to Mr. Stein, who would carefully hang weights from them until they collapsed. The strongest one was declared the winner. I still remember that my bridge would have supported a small kitten. I felt pretty good about that. However, my dad, who worked for a construction company that built a lot bridges and who may have helped me a little too much with the project, felt a small sting of defeat. Especially since Jen Hoef’s bridge beat out mine. “Someone beat yours?” my dad questioned in disbelief. “What does Jen Hoef’s dad do?” I didn’t know, but I have a feeling the only acceptable answer would have been, Jen Hoef’s dad is God Almighty…or Paul McCartney.
And it wasn’t enough for Mr. Stein to make us all want to learn by creating interesting lesson plans. He was also a master at figuring out what our hangups were. One morning before school, I popped into his classroom to ask if he could help me with my homework. I was taking Trigonometry with St. Josepha at the time. And while I had a little soft spot for Sr. Jo, she certainly wasn’t watching “Days of Our Lives” to help make the subject matter more relatable to her students. (Granted, I don’t think Mr. Stein was an avid watcher of “Days” either. But the difference was he took the time to learn about what mattered to us, so he could use that to make Math matter to us as well.) A particular problem was really stumping me, and Mr. Stein finally looked at me and said, “Kelly, you’re complicating things. Don’t think about it so much. This isn’t an English essay question. There’s only one answer.” Boom. Every struggle I had ever had in Math, he had just summed up in four sentences. I was the kind of person who was always interpreting things, finding different words for “nice,” or trying new ways to represent a shoe on canvas. Naturally, I was also the kind of person who would think, Well, can’t 2+2 also mean this…? No. It’s 4. Just write 4 and skip the five paragraph essay.
For all of these reasons, Mr. Stein remains one of the single biggest influential people in my life. I wanted to become a teacher because of him. It was easy to admire those who did well what I already loved myself; but it was transcendental to watch someone make me love that which I never thought I would (and yes, I am aware that “transcendental” has spiritual, literary, AND mathematical meaning. #intentionallynailedit) I wanted to do that for others. And it was no coincidence that one of the very first lesson plans I created as a high school English teacher compared the ancient Greek gods and goddesses to characters from, you guessed it, “Days of Our Lives.” (It’s so obvious that Sami and Eric Brady are the modern-day twin siblings, Artemis and Apollo. For reals.)
This weekend, Mr. Stein is receiving the first ever “St. Joseph the Worker Award” from my high school. As a surprise to him, the school asked some of his former students, me included, to share memories of what he meant to us. I had a hard time with it, because I felt there was so much to say. Thankfully, everything I couldn’t say in that video, I was able to say here. But I almost hesitated in publishing this for our Thursday “Remember the Time” link up, fearing that somehow he might see this, and it ruin Saturday’s surprise. But then I knew better. There is no way Mr. Stein will happen upon my blog. Chances are, no matter what time of day it is, he is in his classroom at this very moment…teaching, tutoring, devising a new lesson, grading papers, prepping for tomorrow, hanging bridges from his ceiling, checking that there is a protractor under every desk…or watching a quick episode of whatever television drama it is that high school girls watch these days so he can teach inductive and deductive reasoning.
Whichever reasoning you use, it is a proven fact that Mr. Stein takes the Pi. (Whoa. Math jokes are dumb.)
Link up with us! Here’s how to do it:
1. Write your post. Remember, it can be ANYTHING about teachers. Just try to stick with the whole “back in the day” vibe ;D
2. Grab this badge and place it at the bottom of your post.
3. Add your link below and come back to see all the other great posts your blogging pals have written! Comment on them and tweet and share your favorites! The link-up closes at 11:59pm EST on Sunday, so get those links in before then.