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October 11, 2009

  • The Aviary
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    If I had a nemesis during Grades 10, 11 and 12 at my high school in Oakville, it would have been my math teacher, Mr. Schultz. I don’t think I ever met anyone scarier; certainly, I never met anyone more disagreeable. Looking back on the three years when I was forced, through the arbitrariness of academic scheduling, to take his class I doubt I retained a single thing that he taught me about math. 

    That’s not entirely true. I can recall what he said that denigrated what other teachers taught me, like using the mnemonic FOIL (“First Outers Inners Last”) to remember order of operations. “What a stupid method.” He fumed. “It presumes people don’t have the brains to work things out for themselves.” I can also vividly reconstruct in my mind the way he would furiously bisect a blackboard using a compass, chalk and a metre stick. But I remember nothing about polynomials, or the quadratic formula, or conics and indeed the blessed trigonometry I was supposed to know.

    What I do remember was Mr. Schultz’s percussive abilities as a teacher. No one slammed down more books, or whipped more chalk at more blackboards, or cracked more metre sticks on more desks. I took math with him each semester every year from 1985 to 1987 and what I remember most was the sudden BANG!

    “ARE YOU LISTENING!?” He’d shout at some uninterested teenager.

    He was a thin, wiry man who was a bit taller than average height. He wore a brown suit with a shirt and tie every day to class. When his neck and his face would turn a fissionable shade of pink under his wispy shock of hair and moustache, that’s when you knew things were going to get bad. It was the speed of his temper more than the fury that worried me. He would be talking normally and then suddenly he’d whack a metre stick on the desk of a student who had the misfortune to be caught talking to someone else.

    I was terrified of him. Not because I was the type of student to be disobedient but because I was a terrible math student. I had no aptitude for the subject and lack of aptitude led to boredom which in turn led to a lack of effort to do homework…. and being bored, unprepared and idle were three things to avoid in Mr. Schultz’s class.

    He was distinctly (and literally) old school in his approach. He disdained mnemonics and despised the pedagogy of making math ‘accessible’ by tying it in with popular music or fashion, as our textbook had done. Math was math with Mr. Schultz. If you wanted to fly planes from Malton airport (he never called it Toronto airport, ever) you needed to know trigonometry. If you wanted to build bridges, you needed geometry. Mnemonics cut corners and ultimately prevented people from learning how to truly solve something. He was relentlessly pragmatic.

    To this day I still can’t believe I kept taking math. My best friend realized that the math requirement for our diploma ended in Grade 10 and he made the decision to stop there. I decided to take someone’s sage advice and kept taking math because I thought it would look better to potential universities. Whoever gave me that sage advice was a first-rate yutz: I fumbled, getting nothing slightly better than a failing grade in math for the rest of high school.  Meanwhile, my best friend got into university without knowing the sine and cosine functions on his calculator.

    And so it was that I kept showing up for the shock and awe that was MAT 2A1, MAT 3A1 and MAT 4A1 in the Gordon E. Perdue High School Course Calendar. I spent most of my time trying to be as invisible as possible, like some nerd ninja in rugby pants.

    This was probably easier than I thought. Mr. Schultz’s classes were spent force-feeding math, intimidating pubescents and being opinionated. Between those three things, my inability to understand analytic geometry was a much lower priority.

    Indeed, it was his opinions that I remember more than the math itself. I found them probably more antagonistic than the way he brandished a metre stick. Just as quickly as he would fly into a rage, he would fly into a rant.

    “People are stupid.” He said once. “They would rather be led like sheep by anyone than think for themselves.”

    He seemed fond of the word stupid. He was vexed by irrational people. He once told an anecdote about a university professor who disputed Decartes assertion “I think, therefore I am.” Apparently the professor said, “How do we know we exist? How do we know anything is real?”

    “So what some students did was remove the flight of stairs outside his office.” Mr. Schultz told us. “And the professor wasn’t paying attention so he took a step and fell and broke some bones. And the students laughed and said ‘I guess that staircase wasn’t real either.’”

    He was equally suspicious of anyone who held claims on anything. He was bluntly atheistic and thought religion was another mechanism for people to be stupid. One day, Mr. Schultz thundered, “No one knows what truth is. The person who most influenced Western Society as we know it was once asked ‘What is truth?’ and even he couldn’t provide an answer.”

    I was always offended by his challenges to religion. As a teenager, my form of rebellion was to become a conservative Christian. I knew my scripture and I knew he was wrong. In the Biblical narrative, Pilate tells Jesus “What is truth?” and then leaves the room never looking for an answer. It was a sarcastic rhetorical flourish, not a question.

    Not that I was going to challenge Mr. Schultz—because he scared me.

    And yet Mr. Schultz found out about my religiosity. Not by my choice. I lived in Oakville and the church I attended was in Burlington. Getting there when I couldn’t scare up a ride meant a tortuous bus journey across the transit systems of two cities and then walking over an overpass and then journeying another 10 or so minutes to the industrial park that housed the Church I went to.

    One school night when I was going to a service, I was trudging over the overpass, when a beat up, brown Toyota Corolla pulled up in front of me. It was Mr. Schultz, and he offered me a lift.

    “Where are you going?” He asked me.

    I stammered that I was going to Church. I hastily added that I didn’t go very often on weeknights and that I done on my homework.

    I found myself embarrassed about it.

    For his part, Mr. Schultz didn’t seem perturbed. And he didn’t say anything about my beliefs. He dropped me off at the tacky little building with the lit sign that said “Jesus Loves You” and we never spoke of it again.

    Occasionally he would give us insights into his own past. His family were Russians who lived in Germany during the Second World War. Suffice it to say, a German émigré was not welcomed with open arms in Canada in the 1950s. He only mentioned the intolerance he experienced in the schoolyard in passing, somewhere along the way to a rant where he decried the Anglo-centrism of his textbooks. “We were in Canada.” He fumed. “And the history books are all about England. And we sang “God save the Queen.”

    Then the day happened where we didn’t talk about math at all.

    I don’t think he actually intended it all to unfold as it did. He was explaining something and one thing led to another and then he started talking about the deepest recesses of his memory.

    “I remember walking with my parents on the road outside the city.” He told us. “And I looked behind me. And there I could see Dresden on fire. The British firebombed it. The flames lit up the night sky”

    For the next hour he talked about living with his mother and his father as Displaced Persons in the dying days of the war and then emigrating. Somewhere along the way he told another story he told in his crisp, emphatic Canadian accent. I don’t remember where it fits in his personal timeline—it was while he lived in Germany but whether it was before, after, or during the war is lost to me.

    “I remember when I started school.” He recalled. “We had a teacher who was very strict. He made us line up outside in the cold. We had to line up in a particular way. And he would not let us in until we had lined up properly. He was a young man, but difficult. He never smiled.

    “One day he walked us to a nearby house which had an aviary. Do you know what an aviary is?”

    Someone indicated they knew.

    “That’s right. It’s a giant enclosure where they keep birds. It was the most beautiful place. There were trees and a garden and there were all sorts of different birds. Our teacher told us about the different species of birds, and explained how birds flew. It was the most incredible experience.

    “I never forgot that.” He said, wistfully

    In Grade 13, I was taught Functions and Relations by Mr. Plach, a lanky and affable, if somewhat ineffective, teacher. He didn’t rant, didn’t tell stories, and didn’t terrorize the class. I was free to be bored, unprepared and idle. Unlike previous years, where I just scraped by, I finished with the worst mark that I had ever received in high school math and I wasn’t able to graduate with my friends. I went to summer school, where I was able to put my full concentration on the subject and was proud when I got the best mark of my career as a would-be mathematician: 67%.

    I never had dealings with Mr. Schultz again. I would see him from time to time in school, where he was intimidating some of my other friends. Once or twice I saw him at Mother’s Pizza, accompanied by an attractive woman about his age. I had seen her before with him. He wasn’t married, but I presumed she was some sort of regular companion. His body language indicated that he was a charming and attentive conversationalist, if not a ladykiller.

    What was most interesting about seeing Mr. Schultz in social situations—even from a distance—was that they were only times I ever saw Mr. Schultz laugh.

    Shortly before the end of my last year in high school, Mr. Schultz disappeared, replaced by a series of less impressive substitutes. Apparently he had health troubles of some sort. Shortly after that, my high school closed as a result of local school board politics and Mr. Schultz disappeared to another school.

    By the end of Grade 13, I was starting to realize that conservative Christianity was not for me. It was too judgmental, too anti-intellectual, too desperate to lead people like sheep A few months later after graduating high school, I left the church Mr. Schultz gave me a ride to that night, never to return.

    My parents still have a complete record of our report cards. Midway during the term, teachers sent what were called “Interim Course Reports” to parents. Unlike the final reports, which featured standard phrases spat up by a computer, these were forms handwritten by the teachers. Mr. Schultz wrote one such Interim Report for Grade 11 math. Dated December 4, 1985, Mr. Schultz wrote, “Graeme has the ability to do well. Good class participation. However, his style of note taking and frequent neglect to complete assignments hinder progress. Please reply.”

    I was surprised when I read that. Surprised because I didn’t think I participated all that much, surprised because I don’t remember being all that noticeable, but mostly surprised because I never thought anyone would ever say I had the ability to do well at math. But he did.

    I don’t remember a single thing Mr. Schultz taught me about math. I remember the overall topics: analytic and inductive geometry, conics, linear equations.Ask me what the quadratic formula is, or the relation of the adjacent to the hypotenuse and I couldn’t tell you.

    But Mr. Schultz, I later realized, wasn’t a math teacher. He was an aviary: an expansive enclosure filled with mundane and exotic birds. And I was fortunate to have been the student who stood in line in the cold.

    Posted by graeme | (3) Comments | Permalink

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    Arturo  on  10/12  at  12:07 PM

    I guess it would be both geeky and very close to missing the point to point out that FOIL is not a mnemonic about the order of operations, but rather a menmonic for expanding a product of two binomials: (a+b)(c+d) is equal to the sum of the products of the FIRSTS (a and c), the OUTERS (a and d), the INNERS (b and c), and the LASTS (b and d): (a+b)(c+d) = ac+ad+bc+bd. (The order of the operations would be ‘multiplication before addition’ in this case). wink

    Scott  on  10/19  at  12:38 PM

    Very evocative. I find myself now staring off into space flooded with memories of teachers past.

    Stu  on  09/22  at  12:17 PM

    And here I was thinking his name was Mr. Schmidt.  It has to be the same math teacher.  I never had him but my locker was on the first floor outside his room, next to the boys washroom (great for having a drag when raining outside).  I’d hear him screaming all the time, actually wishing I may get him one year so my dad could come down a lay into him.  Are you sure his face and neck were turned pink from anger?  I thought it was from the scotch or rye he had consumed moments earlier.
    You positive his name wasn’t Schmidt?  smile

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