Monday, January 10, 2011

Tribute to four teachers

Many people offer advice about education--and, in particular, about mathematics education.  I'm skeptical of general pronouncements because my encounters with learning (as student or teacher or parent) have been singular:  one mind meeting another mind for a period of exchange.  Here's a poem that recalls four of my teachers, three of them teachers of mathematics. 

The Ones I Best Remember     by JoAnne Growney

Dedicated to the memories of Laura Church, T. K. Pan, Elinor Blair and Miriam Ayer


Chalk in hand,
she tosses her book,
strides across the room,
excited by trigonometry,
excited that we,
restless in our rows,
caught some of it.
Flamboyant, silver,
fearless woman.


The geometer bends
toward the blackboard,
drawing quick sketches
that show how the one-form
is the heart of the matter—
the foundation for intuition
to build its new ideas.
Vigorous, prodding,
kindhearted man.


Elegant in long flared skirts
when others have shortened theirs—
the one who loves Old English,
who points to the shadows
of Beowulf and Wordsworth
in advertising slogans
and late-night TV:
each thing is our teacher
if we watch and listen.


Nervous in class and tough
to follow—she made errors
on the blackboard yet demanded
we write perfect mathematics
in perfect English sentences. This was not
an East Coast finishing school, and I hoped
she’d be lenient with the Asian students
even as fear made me work infinitely hard
on papers that she gave back bright
with red-ink from her difficult hand.
No one before or since has read my words
so carefully.

     Two of these teachers taught at Indiana Joint High School (Indiana, PA) during my time there in the late 1950s and two were graduate school professors at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1960s.

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