It should come as no surprise to you that throughout my academic career, English was the hour I looked forward to the most. That was followed by History, which captivated me for its sheer breadth of costume changes alone. Science I found tedious but I usually enjoyed the subject matter—I was fond of plants, gravity, isopropyl alcohol, frog intestines—and besides, we got to play with fire. And way down at the bottom of the list, below sitting alone at lunch, below showering naked with strangers after swimming in a chlorine vat, was Math. Even the word sounds flat and deplorable. There were no heroes, no revolutions, no chemical changes, no magic.
So when my friend Ashley informed me yesterday that one of our high school teachers, Larry Matthews, died suddenly last week, you’ll understand why I’m so sad. Doc, as everyone called him, was not only one of my favorite teachers of all time, he taught math. So he must have been extra good.
Although it sometimes made me cry, up until 8th grade Algebra, Math and I were basically cool. I could think of myself like a number sleuth; we were looking for x, and sometimes y. We found x, we found y, end of story, check your work. But when I got to high school we started dealing with all these “what ifs.” I stopped doing well when the solution itself included an x and looked more like the Gateway Arch. Infinity as an answer? Impossible to grasp.
It also didn’t help that high school mathematics required us to come to class with a major distraction: a TI-81 graphing calculator. For the next four years we would spend half of our time coaxing the sine, cosine and tangent waves into displaying the most authentic-looking butt and boob shapes along the x-axis. And the rest of the time using the letter-typing feature to draft notes to our fellow students, who we then pretended we needed to trade calculators with. (To my younger readers: We didn’t have cell phones back then, this was our only way of text messaging.)
I suffered through Honors Geometry, Honors Algebra 2 with Trig, and Honors Pre-Calculus until somebody had the sense to put me out of my misery. Finally, senior year, I was released from the custody of my beloved nerdherd and dropped to the b-track, Calculus AB. For people who are smart enough to take the AP Calculus exam at the end of the year but also smart enough to know they don’t want to make a career out of it.
I won’t ever admit that Doc Matthews made math fun, but Doc was fun. He ran the class like it was Letterman, and we were the studio audience. My enemies x, y and z evolved into stick figures with full heads of curly hair and curious beards. If we got a question right he’d run back to the board and scribble the answer with a dry erase flourish like he just got the answer to Final Jeopardy.
His energy and enthusiasm were magnetic. Explanations of limits, functions and differentials were lumped into easy-to-remember 70’s rock lyric parodies, sports metaphors and Doc-authored rhymes that had jaded 17-year-olds chanting “related rates <desk thump> related rates <desk thump> don’t need no dates <desk thump> to do related rates.”
If we talked to our neighbor during class, our names were placed in the Chit-Chat Box on the board, a clever way of both acknowledging and embarrassing us.
Fridays were the best. Those were reserved for extravagant Donut Parties, where someone was charged with making a Dunkin’ run before school. We’d spend the first 15 minutes of class engaged in a casual and quite civilized early morning cocktail party (only with orange juice). It was an amazing gesture that made us feel, you know, like grown ups.
But for all Doc’s ability to explain formulas in terms of the University of Tennesee sport currently in season, for all his musical talents, for all his custard-filled allowances, I was failing.
My low point was a 12% on a test. My friend Lisa—another Non-Mathlete Left Behind—remembers getting a 6%. Doc pulled me aside for my come-to-Newton moment.
“I know you hate this,” he said, his eyes still oddly smiling even though he was being stern. “So let me put it another way for you. If you pass the AP test, you will never have to think about math again.”
No one had ever put it in perspective like that for me. Other teachers had lied to us, told us that we’d better learn the quadratic equation because we’d need it to balance our checkbooks (another thing I’ve never had to do—liars!). But he knew me and my non-number-crunching brain well enough that he knew exactly how to motivate me to do better. My eyes lit up at the thought of a math-free life. Cue the study montage!
I honestly busted the books until that fateful day in May. And well…I’d love to say I tested out of Calculus forever right then and there, but the truth is all my cramming wasn’t enough to unearth me from four years of math deficiencies. When I enrolled at the University of Colorado that fall, my schedule included one final, hopeful semester of math. But Doc was half right. Not only did I breeze through it, I got my first 100% on a math test. Ever.
And after that, Doc was absolutely right: I never had to think about math another day of my life. Until today, when writing this piece and I had to Google all the terms I supposedly learned in his class and have long since forgotten. But I’ll never, ever forget Doc.
For him, I’ll even accept the infinity sign as his final answer. Which he, of course, has added a nose and a grin to and turned it into a smiley face.