Thursday, March 23, 2006

My many math teachers, part two: Algebra

Mr. K. spiked his coffee with something strong and foul-smelling. I saw him twice a day–once in homeroom, when he’d be irritable because he wasn’t drunk yet, and then again in third period, after the magic of his flask had taken hold. He was a squat, jaundiced man with coke-bottle glasses and the least convincing comb-over in Minnesota. He spoke in a slurry growl that occasionally, and with no warning, shot up several octaves so that he could exclaim “Whooo-hoo!” for reasons that were lost on us. A plane crash in Africa? Whooo-hoo! A war in Iraq? Whooo-hoo! A delegation from the Board of Education sitting in on his class? Whoo-hoo!

He was entertaining, but he sure as hell didn’t teach much algebra. His strategy was to let us chat for the first ten minutes as he sipped his nine-parts-whisky-one-part-coffee concoction, and then tell us to shaddup, shaddup already. From there, he would proceed to wobble on up to the front of the classroom and command us to open to page 233 of our workbooks. With an impressive array of profanity and various utterances that made no sense to anyone, he would scrawl out the answers to questions one through eleven on the blackboard. Even to callow adolescents, this was agonizing to watch, so we preferred to whisper among ourselves as he went through this ritual. It was important, however, that we jot down what he was doing up there, because once he’d come to the end of his computations, he’d usually wander back to his chair, stare blankly out into space for awhile, and then assign us questions one through nine as homework.

Once he reached for the chalk ledge, missed by a few feet, and fell to the floor. The class watched him wiggle there like a half-squashed beetle until he finally pulled himself upright, squealed “Whooo-hoo!” and went on with his lesson. One days when he didn’t want to risk getting out of his chair, he’d stay slumped behind his desk with our assignments from last night strewn in front of him. He’d pull one out at random, hold it right in front of is glasses, and bellow out that student’s name. The poor kid then had to go up and stand in the fermented stink of his breath as he grunted and raved about all the errors he or she had made. It was futile to point out that the homework he was clutching belonged to somebody in the next period or even to mention that you had just copied down what he had put on the board the day before. All you could do was wait for it to end, steadily getting tipsy in the 100-proof wind coming off of him.