May 9, 2013

Teacher appreciation

Mrs. Page was an enigma.

She was an older woman who wore dowdy shirtwaist dresses and orthopedic shoes.  In another life, her brilliance in mathematics would have taken her to the heights of academia or to a research institution charged with solving mankind’s most difficult problems.

Instead, Mrs. Page terrorized ninth-grade geometry students.  And I was among them.

This was 1964, and we lived in constant fear that nuclear war would target our suburban Washington, DC neighborhood.  But even more concerning were the inevitable consequences of a missed math assignment or a lost geometry notebook.  Mrs. Page took no prisoners.  You did the work or you failed.

Mrs. Page had exceedingly high expectations for her students, none of whom could understand her passion for logic and reasoning.  We were required to complete all assignments with precision and neatness.  Each geometric proof would follow a prescribed procedure requiring a protractor, colored pencils, and a compass.  Each would end with the mandatory Q.E.D.— quod erat demonstrandum.

Or points would be mercilessly deducted.

Out of step with her times, Signe Page was a single mom raising a disabled son, who spent days sitting on a bench outside of the principal’s office.  In retrospect, I can see that Mrs. Page might have had a hard life.

She once tried to teach us the mathematical secrets behind the ease with which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced in perfect synchronization.  It was supposed to be a holiday gift to the class. We didn’t get it.

And Mrs. Page frequently conversed with Albert Einstein.  She posted a large black and white photo of her hero at the front of the classroom and would often pause to ask his advice or complain about the obvious indifference of her students.

But Albert never responded.  He just looked on with a benign smile knowing that “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what he learned in school.”

I now know that Mrs. Page came from Minnesota and graduated from Hamline University.  There used to be an endowed scholarship in her name, but it seems to have disappeared along with most of her footprint on earth. 

In all honesty, the Pythagorean Theorem has never played much of a role in my life.  But Mrs. Page taught me so much more about passion and being true to yourself. And those are lessons I haven't forgotten.

Students, take a few minutes today to show your appreciation and thank all those teachers who have gone the extra mile to support you.  Don't wait nearly 50 years like I did.

This column has been updated from the original.

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