Sometimes the kids don’t like a teacher.
Sometimes a teacher doesn’t like the kids.
That could be. . . awkward.
When my last class was over, I gathered my things and headed to my locker. There, I deposited everything but my math book, a notebook that still had a lot of empty pages in it and a couple of pencils. Then it was off to the detention room.
Detention was held down in the basement in a large classroom that was no longer used for teaching. It was a gloomy, rather dilapidated place that smelled of mildew and unwashed, stressed out teenagers. The detention duty was shared by all the teachers and I was in luck. Today’s guardian of the doomed, meaning us problem children, was one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Bloomberg. He taught art, a subject I enjoyed with enthusiasm if not talent; I think Mr. Bloomberg liked my spirit and ignored my lack of demonstrable skill. As so many students were anything but enthusiastic in his class and wasted everyone’s time fooling around, he appreciated my interest and perhaps for that reason liked me as well.
I approached him at the front of the room. He seemed puzzled to see me, which wasn’t surprising as I was a very low key kid in school, practically invisible in fact, and never in trouble. This was my first time ever in detention. I told him I was going to work with Brad on math and asked if it was all right with him if we spoke quietly while trying to do some problems. He OKed it, so we were going to be home free, at least today.
Brad came in looking pissed, his entire posture saying he didn’t want to be there, and I motioned him to join me in the rear corner of the room. He did so, plopped his backpack on an empty desk next to us and sat down. He was angry and unhappy and looked gorgeous.
Mr. Bloomberg called roll, then told us all to do homework, stay in our seats, not make any noise and we’d be released in an hour and a half. Anyone causing a disturbance would be given additional detentions.
I spoke quietly. “Brad, I told Mr. Bloomberg we’d be working together and he said we could talk. First off, can you tell me what your problem is? I know you’re smart. You’re in advanced math so you must have done well in math before. What’s going on?”
Brad looked at me, and although his eyes were difficult to read I could tell he was debating with himself about how much he wanted to say to me, maybe just how he wanted to say it. After all, we didn’t know each other, I’d indirectly caused him a lot of trouble today, I’d got an F while he’d got a D, and perhaps worst of all, I was a dork and he was practically king of the school. At 13, kids were afraid dorkishness could rub off. Their reputations and social standing could be destroyed just by talking to a kid like me. And just how much help could I be, with my F and all? Too, answering my question would probably be embarrassing. What teenager wants to admit in detail what he’s bad at? Then, I could see a change in his eyes, almost as if he’d decided, what the hell, why not give this a try?
“I don’t know,” he answered, not angrily as I was expecting but sort of dispiritedly. “I’ve never really liked math, but it wasn’t that hard for me. But this year, I just don’t get a lot of it. Everything’s different. Unknowns and equations and reducing improper fractions and negative quantities and square roots. . . it’s just all difficult.”
“We’re not being helped much by Mrs. Graedon, either,” I replied, attempting to be supportive, trying to show him I was on his side and that I agreed with him and didn’t think it was his fault he was having problems. “She explains things in a way that makes them harder to understand, not easier. Take today’s quiz, for example. She had us reducing equations with parenthetical quantities on both sides, and she only touched briefly on how to do that during the week, and even then didn’t explain it very well.”
“Yeah,” Brad agreed, with some emotion. “I couldn’t remember what you’re supposed to do first.”
“Well then, here, let me give you a trick my father showed me. He said there are several ways to remember how do to this, but the one I found easiest to remember was, when you have a complex equation or function with parentheses and raised powers and such, you use the phrase ‘Please Expect My Dear Aunt Sally.’ You can remember that, can’t you?”
“Huh?” Brad asked, looking at me like maybe my mind had blown a gasket or something.
I held back a giggle, but did smile. “Well, you have to decide which operations to do in what order to get the right answer. That’s what the phrase tells you. It stands for Parentheses, then Exponents, then Multiply and Divide, then Add and Subtract. So, looking at the problem, first you do everything inside the parentheses, then you do all the operations involving exponents, then any multiplying and dividing, then finish up with any adding and subtracting. If you do it in that order, you end up with the right answer.”
I then wrote out a problem like the ones we were quizzed on today and had him work it out. I wrote P E M D A S on the top of the page for him to refer to, and in a surprisingly quick time, glancing up occasionally to where I’d jotted the reminder, he got the right answer. I then made up three more equations, and he got them all perfectly.
“Hey,” he said with a smile, “this isn’t so hard. Why didn’t she show us this?”
“’Cause she’s an asshole,” I snorted. “Now let’s see what else you’re struggling with.”
For the next hour we reviewed the book, and he kept asking questions about almost everything we’d learned this term. He always seemed to be caught up on just one or two points he’d missed from Mrs. Graedon, which in algebra can be deadly as the trick is mostly following weird rules. I would explain things, and he’d get a great smile as he caught on to something that had stumped him before. He kept saying, “Wow, now I get it.” But that smile! It lit up the room. He kept grabbing my arm, his enthusiasm bubbling over and his great beaming smile lighting his face, and I was having the problem I hoped I wouldn’t. In a big way, if you get my meaning. Well, in as big a way as I was capable of, being 13 and all. Luckily, I’d come prepared. I’d brought my jacket and it had been strategically draped across my lap. It’s always a good idea to plan ahead.
Brad had lots of questions and by the time the hour and a half was over we’d only got about a quarter of the way through what had been covered in class so far this year. But Brad was really happy. And there seemed to be something, some chemistry or emotion or I don’t know what but something, building between us. I felt really comfortable with him, other than of course the hard personal problem I was dealing with. When Mr. Bloomberg let us go, Brad jumped up and stood waiting for me. That was a little awkward, of course, but standing up with my jacket held casually and apparently unintentionally in front of me, I was able to walk out with him without stopping traffic or scaring small children or their mothers, or, much more importantly, causing young teenagers to point and laugh.
“Hey, this went great,” Brad said as we reached the lockers. “I didn’t think I was smart enough to get this stuff, but you make it almost easy. Thanks a lot for the help, man.”
“Brad, I want to apologize again for getting you into this mess. I feel really bad about it. And you might even miss a game because of me. I’m sorry, and I’m glad you’re being so nice about it. You don’t have to be. It was all my fault.”
“No, no, no prob, man,” he reassured me. “It’s only a practice scrimmage this week and the coach won’t give me any shit anyway. My parents will be a little angry about the detention, but when I tell them how algebra is making sense to me, that I now really understand it, they’ll forget about everything else. In the long run, this detention will be a real help. We’re doing this again tomorrow, right?” When I nodded, he smiled and went on. “Thanks again, Danny, but now I’ve got to book.” With that, he was off running for the door.
I opened my locker. I couldn’t stop smiling. His energy and spirit were like a little kid’s and his face had been radiant when he had thanked me. I wasn’t going to have a shortage of fantasy material to make my evening enjoyable tonight.
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