I think my perception of math was shaped by my horrible third grade textbook, Busy Beavers, and the more horrible witch I had for a teacher. Together they killed whatever interest I, an aspiring astronaut, may have had for the subject. The loads of “nightwork” (as she called it) and the perpetual criticism she dealt me and every other male in the class, were a death knell for numbers.
The introduction of “new math” in seventh grade, supported by the Mary P. Dolciani series text books, did provide a bit of respite, but Algebra One in ninth grade was a near repeat of third grade. The thought of having to take a second year of algebra was bit too much.
But there was something about Mr. Szebalski that provided a spark. It certainly did not bubble from lax standards. We had to work. But there was an energy and a quirky sense of humor that brightened the task and made it a bit – dare I say it – fun… or at least pleasingly challenging.
Homework was generally limited to about five problems a night. But while few in number, the problems assigned required significant detail. Each equation needed to be articulated into discreet steps and each step could contain only a single operation. “Put in ALL the steps!” was the daily exhortation. You could burn through several sheets of Kurtz Brothers (“Pittsburgh, Clearfield and Paoli”) tablet paper in a single night. The next day often featured a public display and critique of our work. He would call out the names of several students who were summoned to put their work on the green board. Squeaking chalk students would do their best to legibly expound their process. Others watched, basking in the relief of not being called, while their mates sweated it out.
When all were done and returned to their seats the dissection of the work began. “Fred” he began, “failed here – he tried to do three operations in a single step and made an error. He could not find that error because he tried to do it the easy way. He’d be better off starting all over.” “Now Linda got the right answer. She put in ALL the steps.” His meter stick was always at the ready. He would use it to tap each of the nine steps Linda had written on the board – as if to assign a tempo to the work. He would creschendo by gliding sideways with one foot and stretching his arm fullout to reach the far end of a half-mile wide equation and tap with delight over the correct answer.
Some days the critique was a bit less demanding. He would hold up selected papers for all to see and he’d offer his critique. Always diligently covering the name with his fingers to avoid any embarrassment, but forgetting (perhaps) that a verbal disclosure was just as indicting, he’d begin: “Now Jimmy Hartzell started off well but then probably became interested in that basketball game on TV and his work trailed off.” At this point all were experiencing a conflicted moment. We felt sorry for Jimmy, but the theater was too much. We’d crack up. We knew we would have our turn in the near future.
In the dead of winter, when days were short and nights long, there was little danger of nodding off in class. The windows were left wide open even as the frost clouded the windshields of the teachers’ cars visible in the lot just outside. My assigned seat was in the row by the window and I got the full shot.
No time was ever lost. We had a quiz the day before Christmas vacation! The answers, when you read down the left column of answers, spelled out “Merry Christmas”. While seemingly unbending, he once modified my friend Stan’s report card grade from a C+ to a B- so he could make the honor roll for the first time. Not to be too soft, he penciled “By a wisker (sic)” in the space provided for comment.
Years later, while in town doing some grocery shopping for my mother, I ran into Mr, Szebalski in the meat department at Hal’s Shop and Save. He recognized me! We struck up a conversation about what I was doing these days. He asked if I ever used the math he taught in the class and my answer was simple. “No. I never used the math.” I paused briefly for effect. “The organization, the discipline, the processes you taught… well, I use them every day. Every single day.”