Monday, October 25, 2010

that 20-years-ago thing

I was just thinking about certain experiences and teachers from gradeschool for some reason. If I had a different family, and if I were in second grade now rather than twenty years ago, I would have been one of those unfortunate kids to have been thrust into taking Ritalin (and then, in my case, because of my then-undetected congenital heart valve disease, I suspect I would have pretty shortly been dead). Ms. Summers used to always bust my balls about "staring off in to space"; I guess I just wasn't interested. And more than one teacher complained that, while they wish they had a classroom full of me's, I just talked too much; i.e., I rarely did anything that required being disciplined, except for talking during class. I was serious ADD-meds material.

I also remember well the difficulty I had in the notion of "rounding up from 5"; I thought she was trying to say, in a sequence of numbers, written on a sheet of paper, one would need to begin writing the numbers vertically (i.e., "up"), rather than horizontally, if one happened to land on a 5.

Two years later, nonetheless, at another school, another lifetime, I had the highest math average in my class, and went downhill arithmetically from there. The one exception was my senior year. (In college, of course, I did much better, but here we're dealing with before that.) I had a pretty good teacher for a semester, but then she left. Then we had an African guy who was almost incomprehensible. Then we had Mrs. Spatorno who was -- as I told her husband when I met him, totally by chance, years later -- simply the best math teacher I've ever had in my life. Naturally many students called her a bitch; she was, as Mr. Spatorno accurately said of his wife, very "matter of fact." To me she was simply brilliant. Neither was she unattractive in any sense of the word; her looks were as sharp as her mind. And indeed her pedagogical wit was as refined as any good college professor's. I especially remember one junior reciting that oft-repeated mantra, "But when am I ever going to use this in life?" to which Madame replied, "Well, you have an exam to use it on next week."

I don't really have a point other than that you can't learn something that you don't find interesting (I've used math because, historically, it's been one of the most uninteresting things to me). If you find something truly interesting, you'll never even need a real "live" teacher for it; most of my principal teachers have been dead for decades, a few for centuries. But a good teacher can do the impossible: a good teacher can make interesting the uninteresting. Or rather, a good teacher brings to light that this particular lesson is simply part of, as Chesterton would say, the only "subject" there is in the whole universe.

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