Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > Now That’s a Math Teacher

Now That’s a Math Teacher

December 30, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Miss Smith was tall, slender and had bright, ice-blue eyes. She wore darker, earth-toned clothes and was almost surely the smartest person who taught at my high school. Back then, we all thought she was a happy but reserved spinster who lived up near the Cascade Mountains. But, I’d guess now that she had a partner waiting at the end of her long drive home toward Mount Rainier.

As a Ph.D. mathematician, she could have made great money in the Aerospace industry, but, for some reason, she’d chosen to teach. This was lucky for me and the rest of the kids at my school who qualified for her Analytical Geometry and Calculus courses. What a head start in college that was for a guy interested in engineering!

One of the things that stays with me most from her class is the way she introduced the Theory of Limits on our first day.

She had us push the chair-desks to one end of the classroom. Then, she had all the boys line up near the wall on one of the room’s long sides, facing the girls, who lined up against the opposite wall. We stood maybe 20 feet apart, acting nervous and dweebish. This was a new kind of class experience and unheard of for math. We were all a bit anxious about what Miss Smith might have in mind.

Then, accented by a long scarf that she had half-wound around both arms, Miss Smith stretched them out wide. With everyone’s attention focused on that dramatic move, she made a sweeping, theatrical gesture that brought her hands together, palms flat and paralel about an inch apart. At the same time, she told the boys to walk half-way toward the girls.

And we did.

Then, she instructed the girls with the same broad, scarf-enhanced motion to move half-way toward the boys. After one round, we now stood just five feet apart. Clowns among the boys started to do some over-the-top leering, at which foolishness the girls rolled their eyes. Their response was clear: How did such immature, insectile lame-i-tude creep in under the door of a Calculus class?

Miss Smith strode down the open space between us, shooshing the rowdies and declaring, “This is math, gentlemen, not dancing in the dark.”

At the end of the line, she turned on her heel and again raised her arms high, waving us into a second round. We now stood 15 inches apart and well into each other’s personal space. Everyone reacted somehow. But, again, she shooshed us. And, again we moved as she commanded—to what should have been about three inches apart.

The most confident or clueless of us had only made it to about five inches apart and all of us were embarrassed. Half were blushing, and at least one lad was as excited as I’ve ever seen anyone be about math, eliciting gasps or snickers from nearby classmates, according to their respective gender.

He was not me, I hasten to add. I was just blushing furiously a few inches away from Katherine, the school’s smartest girl, in what was suddenly a very warm room.

To avoid looking at the person in front of us, we were all staring hard at Miss Smith who stood at one end of our uncomfortable formation. She looked each of us in the eye, holding her expression neutral. Then, she began to raise her arms once more.

An explosion of small gasps and groans erupted from most of us. This was what she’d been waiting for of course. With a satisfied smile on her face, she waved her hands outward instead of together and we all quickly backed apart with relieved sighs.

“Well, you get the idea,” Miss Smith said in her strong, clear voice as she walked to the front of the room. “We could keep this up all period and no one would ever actually touch another person. But…” (wait for it)

“you’d be close enough for all practical purposes.”

And that dear readers is the Theory of Limits taught in a way that any high school student will understand. Never before or since was learning a math concept as … illuminating.

Miss Smith Rocked!

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