Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Life Lessons

There are two reasons I teach: July and August.

My grandmother was a teacher by trade, if not always by disposition. Patience was not a virtue with which either of us was abundantly blessed. Her interests leaned toward art and literature. Yet she spent most of her career teaching math: class after class of basic algebra, taught to rooms full of street toughs who should have long before learned the material.

I do not know why she chose teaching as a profession. I imagine she saw in it security and stability. She was a career woman long before that was common. I think she found in teaching both a feeling of independence and an insulation against a poverty to which she never wanted to return.

She was quite strict. She would fail you as soon as look at you. Yet she was surprisingly popular with her students. Regardless of whether she loved her job, she loved them. She saw in them: there, but for the grace of God. They sensed that she knew more than she would say. Though it was unspoken, though it was many years ago, she had been there and they knew it. Even if they did not love her in return, she commanded their respect.


I sit at my kitchen table, staring at my algebra homework. Nana sits beside me. Her impatience is almost tangible. Haltingly, I answer the first question. I look up. Her eyes say it all.


Try again.

I stare again at the equation. Too long.

Give me that.

She fills in the correct answer. This is no gift. This is escalation. Nana is no-nonsense. I will learn how to factor a quadratic equation. I will learn right now or risk her displeasure.

You see, now? Try again.

I stare at question two. A synapse fires. I write my answer and look up. She nods.

You see? It's easy. Finish these and I'll check them. Ten minutes.


My father is also a math teacher, but of a different stripe. My father loves numbers. He makes them dance across the page. He sees beauty in an elegant proof. He helped with homework only if asked. Even then, he would answer the specific question, nothing more. He wants you to see. He wants you to understand. He wants you to love numbers as he does.

My grandmother was all business. You will do this work. You will do it now and you will do it correctly. Understanding is nice but not necessary. Love it or hate it, that's fine. This is how the problem is done. Now do it.


Whenever I'm having a bad day, I look at my students and picture each one of them as a little dollar sign.

None of this is to say that my grandmother was not a good teacher. Quite probably she was. She had an aversion to doing anything halfway. She also taught at a time when an algebra teacher was expected to do just that: teach algebra, not to entertain her students or boost their self-esteem. If her students left her knowing more than they did before, she considered her work done. Still, teaching is my father's true calling. For my grandmother, it was only her job.

I do not know what her ideal career would have been. She was not interested in "what if," especially if the question applied to her. She had many talents. She wrote well. When her hands still permitted, she was quite artistic. She could, and occasionally would, sing in a fine contralto. She could have done any number of things. Given the decidedly progressive way she lived her life, it is ironic that her true place was in the kitchen. That was the classroom she chose for my education.

There was nothing simple about my grandmother. She did not set out to teach me to cook. I was merely acting as her hands. Even so, we had our best conversations in the kitchen. There, she was most at home and most herself. Over time, I realized that she was sharing more than her method of cooking. She was sharing her philosophy of life.

Sometimes you have the best, sometimes you have only scraps. It is important to know what to do with both. Waste nothing if you can avoid it. Presentation is everything; even plain broiled fish tastes better if you serve it with parsley and a lemon slice. Most folks think the meat is tender if the knife is sharp. Keep people out of your kitchen. What the eye doesn't see, the cook gets away with. Know when fruits are ripe. Everything has its season. More expensive is not always better. Simple is usually best. It is amazing what you can do with salt, pepper and good olive oil. Always say grace. The best cooking can only be done with love.

She gave me all this and more. There are no recipes. She almost never used them. There is no recipe for living. You do the best you can with what you have and as much love as you can find. That is the lesson of life.

Respectfully Yours,



Suldog said...

If you've seen my sheets of softball statistics, you know that I, too, love numbers. Alas, my ability to grasp the finer points ended in geometry class. I have a wonderful set of books at home, originally my father's, Mathematics For The Common Man, that I pull off of the shelves every couple of years in a fit of optimism. I like to think that someday I'll actually get through the trigonometry volume.

Again, wonderful stuff. I fear I'll repeat myself often here.

Char said...

Great write! Your Grandmother taught you something very valuable. Anything done half-assed
is usually better left undone.

Gawd, now I sound like my Grandmother Stull!


Thumbelina said...

You have at last given me words to describe my mother's teaching. She too was a teacher - of your grandmother's ilk. I could never find the words with out making her seem cruel. She is not cruel - I love her - and your words describe her too.
Thank you.

Unknown said...

Oh I love your Nana: "She had an aversion to doing anything halfway." My motto exactly! You're lucky to have had a good teacher.

Dave said...

To me maths is a rewarding science. Wish I was young enough to advance my knowledge, but the brain can't follow complicated instructions now. An enjoyable story Cricket, as usual. - Dave

Buck said...

I like your Nana, Cricket... even tho I never met her. You were fortunate to learn from her.

lime said...

there are easily as many kinds of students as there are teachers. i'm just glad you and nana found a classroom where the two of you clicked.