Friday, March 24, 2006

My many math teachers, part three: Geometry

Mr. P. was the sort of teacher you don’t see too often these days, at least not in this country. There’s just no place for his kind in this lawsuit-happy, self-esteem-centered age. He didn’t give a shit about our feelings. He didn’t give a shit about nuturing us on our educational journey. We were in his class to learn geometry, goddamn it, and we could all drop out and get jobs at the gas station if we didn’t like it. If you asked him, he’d probably take the position that every pedagogic theory developed since WWII was a bunch of touchy-feely vomit which could only create a nation of pampered assholes who didn’t know dick about Euclidian equations. In other words, he was an instructor of the old school. Every day, he stood there before us and lectured. Discussion wasn’t a part of the curriculum until he had finished, dammit, and even then you better hope your question was a good one because it was widely known that Mr. P. was far too busy to teach us the baby math we should have figured out way back in fifth grade, for Christ’s sake.

We all loved him. He was a beast and probably a lunatic, but at least he cared. He was funny as hell, too, even when he was threatening us with bodily harm. Elaborate promises of violence were his specialty. My best friend Eric was his favorite target for these. Once, following a test that even the most brilliant of us failed to score about a 46 on (and no, he didn’t grade on some simpering moron curve, either), he stopped Eric on the way out of class. With a big grin lurking inside his beard, he called out “Eric! May I kindly have a moment of your time?”

I lingered by the door. This was going to be good. “Sure, Mr. P,” Eric said, all youthful guile.

Mr. P. lifted his foot off the floor and pointed at the sole of his shoe. “Do you see this heel, Eric?” he asked.

“Yes, Mr. P.” Eric replied.

“You see this heel? You’re seeing this heel right now?”

Eric nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Well, Eric,” Mr. P. said, his grin growing more and more evil by the moment, “You better get a good look at this heel. Because if you fail another one of my tests, you’re going to be pulling it OUT OF YOUR ASS! Do you understand me?”

“Uh-huh” Eric said and then he hurried to catch up with me. As soon as we were well down the hall, he whispered to me, “That was awesome.”

And indeed it was. It was almost as good as when he caught Eric and I talking during one of his lectures. That time, in front of the whole class, he grabbed my friend’s ear and growled, “Eric, the next time you feel like you have something to say while I’m talking, I’m going to take my cigarette lighter and SET YOUR EAR ON FIRE!”

That remained his high watermark for in-class explosions. He approached it pretty much semi-weekly, however, so we remained entertained for the entire semester. He was always threatening to force something large UP SOMEONE’S ASS! Or telling the preppy girls that they ought to spend less time making up their faces and more time worrying about WHAT GOES INTO THEIR HEADS! It was great. No one skipped his class, because if you did, you might miss his latest eruption. If it was a deliberate strategy, it was a brilliant one: engage the kids with a combination of fear, morbid curiosity, and your own unmedicated volatility.

In an era when our students are falling behind the rest of the developed world, perhaps its time that the Mr. P. approach be resuscitated.

Or maybe not.