February 21, 1997. A productive day, in more ways than one. (#121)

“So when Jesus said, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am,’ the people he was speaking to would have recognized ‘I am’ as what God said to Moses,” Dr. Hurt explained.  “Where’s Lorraine?  I feel like she would have something to say about this.”

Lorraine Mathews was a religious studies major, specializing in Christianity; I knew her from Jeromeville Christsian Fellowship.   I was not a religious studies major.  I took this Writings of John class, and its prerequisite the previous quarter, because I wanted to learn more about the Bible.  I had gotten involved with JCF sophomore year, through friends, and a year ago this month I made a decision to follow Jesus.  I grew up Catholic, where Bible reading consisted of a couple of paragraphs from three different books read aloud by the priest each Sunday, and I wanted to know more about the Bible.

I did not know why Dr. Hurt thought Lorraine would have something to say about this passage, but I did know exactly why she was not in class today.  In a somewhat uncharacteristic move for me, I spoke up, drawing attention to myself and hoping to get a laugh.  “She’s watching Empire Strikes Back,” I said, loud enough for all 150 students to hear.

“Oooooooh,” a few students said, as others chuckled.

“She skipped class for The Empire Strikes Back?” Dr. Hurt repeated.  “Hasn’t she seen that a bunch of times already?”

“This is the new one!” an unidentified student said.

“There’s a new one?”

“Yeah!  With added scenes.”

“Really.  Well, that’s too bad she missed class today.”

After the fact, I felt a little bad.  Maybe I should not have said that.  Maybe Lorraine would be unhappy with me.  She can be a bit feisty sometimes.  But I said what I said.  I wished that I had been watching The Empire Strikes Back with them.  Lucasfilm, the Star Wars production company, was in the middle of rereleasing the three movies with added and changed scenes to better match director George Lucas’ original vision.  The Star Wars movies were not a large part of my childhood, but my roommate Brian was a huge fan.  Brian had watched the new Star Wars multiple times in the last few weeks.  Today he and his friends were watching the next movie, on the first day it hit theaters.  I had seen Star Wars with my friend Barefoot James a few days ago, but Brian said that I could tag along the second time he saw Empire Strikes Back, and James could too.

After the John class ended, I wandered over to the Memorial Union to find a table and get homework done.  It was sunny but cold, so the indoor tables were crowded, but not as crowded as they would be on a rainy day.  I saw Ajeet Tripathi and Brent Wang from JCF sitting at a table.  Ajeet had a book open but did not appear to be actively reading it. 

“‘Sup, Greg?” Ajeet asked.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Just looking for a place to sit for a couple hours.  May I join you?”

“Sure,” Brent said.  “How many more classes do you have today?”

“None–”

“Why are you still here, dude?” Ajeet interrupted.  “It’s Friday afternoon!”

“I need to go to office hours for geometry.  We have a midterm Monday, and I have a few questions.”

Todd Chevallier, another of Ajeet and Brent’s housemates, arrived at the table and said, “Greg.  How’d you beat me here?”  He was coming from the John class also.

“I don’t know.  I guess I just walk fast?”

“Maybe.  Oh, yeah, I had to pee too,” Todd said.

“Greg, did you say you’re taking geometry?” Brent asked.  “Like we all took in high school?”

“It’s a lot more advanced than that,” I explained.  “In this class, we get a lot into the theory behind it, and how to construct a proof.  We also learned about the undefined terms and the foundations of geometry as a logical system.”  I looked up and saw the blank stares on the others’ faces, a familiar sight when I explained anything I learned as a third-year mathematics major to non-mathematics majors.  “It’s the theory behind what you do in high school geometry.”

“Uhh, sure,” Todd said after a pause.  The conversation went into a lull, and I got out my geometry book to work on homework.  Ajeet started singing, “Da da,” followed by some clicking noises, then “Da da da da da da,” six notes of equal duration with the two notes in the middle a minor third lower than all the other notes.  Ajeet repeated the riff, and Todd joined in; I recognized it from a song I had heard numerous times on the radio.

“What are you guys doing?” Brent asked.

“I’ve had that song stuck in my head all day,” Ajeet explained.

“What song?”

“‘Santa Monica,’ by Everclear.  ‘We could live beside the ocean, leave the fire behind…’”

“I’ve never heard it.”

“Really?  It’s on the radio all the time.”

A while later, I looked up from my studying to see Alaina Penn walking by.  Alaina was involved with University Life, another Christian group on campus, and I knew her through mutual friends.  Alaina saw me and waved, walking toward our table.

“Hey, Greg,” Alaina said.  “Mind if I pull up a chair?  If I can find one?”

“I actually need to get going,” Brent said.  “You can have my seat.”

“Thanks!”

“See ya, Brent,” Ajeet said.

“Have a great day,” I added as Brent said goodbye to us and walked away.

I was about to introduce Alaina to Ajeet and Todd, but I was quite well acquainted with the embarrassment of trying to introduce people who already know each other, so first I asked, “Do you guys know Alaina?”

“No,” Ajeet answered as Todd shook his head in the negative.

“She goes to U-Life.  I met her through mutual friends.”

“Were you at U-Life this week, Greg?” Alaina asked.  “I didn’t see you.”

“No,” I explained.  “I had other plans on Tuesday.”

“That was the night you went to see Star Wars with James, right?” Ajeet asked.

“You ditched us for Star Wars?” Alaina asked.  “It’s okay, I’m just messing with you.”

“Wait,” Todd said.  “Greg?  You go to U-Life too?”

I’ve been once.  Two weeks ago.  Alaina and her friends invited me, and I thought it might be nice to check it out.”

“I went a couple times freshman year.  Their large group meetings were a lot like JCF.”

“I noticed that too.”  I did not tell Todd or Ajeet the complete reason why I wanted to try out U-Life, that I felt frustrated at being on the outside of the cliques within JCF.

“Spring training is starting soon!” Ajeet announced.  “Do you guys follow baseball?”

“No,” Alaina answered.

“I used to,” I replied.  “I went to maybe three or four Bay City Titans games every year with my family.  I moved out right when the players went on strike, and I never got back into it.”

“Bummer,  But at least you like the right team,” Ajeet said.  “Baseball is of God.”

“Whoa,” Todd replied.  “Blasphemy?  ‘Baseball is a god?’”

“I said baseball is of God, not a God.  Baseball is God’s gift to us.”

A while later, I heard a new voice say, “Hey, guys.”  Ben Lawton and Whitney Felton, two of Alaina’s friends from U-Life, approached.  “Mind if we join you?”

“Go for it,” I said.  The table next to us was now empty, and I moved aside so that they could push the empty table next to us and make more room.  Whitney introduced herself to Ajeet and Todd; Ben had met them before, since he occasionally attended JCF also.  It was Ben who had first introduced me to Alaina.

“What are you up to the rest of the day?” Ben asked me a bit later.

“I’m going to a professor’s office hours.  What about you?”

“I have a class at 3.”

“A class Friday at 3,” Todd repeated.  “That’s brutal.  It’s bad enough that Ajeet and I have class Friday at 2.”

“We should probably get going for that,” Ajeet added.  “It was nice meeting you guys.  Greg, I’ll see you tonight at JCF?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Have a good one.”

I continued working on homework.  A few minutes after Ajeet and Todd left, Alaina said, “So Whitney and I had this great idea the other day.  We’re gonna throw a coffee house party.  We’ll make all kinds of special coffee drinks, and we’ll decorate the house like a coffee shop.”

“And we’ll have poetry readings, and we’re hoping someone will play live music for part of the night,” Whitney added.  “And we’ll make art to put on the wall.”

“That’s a great idea,” Ben said.  “When is this?”

“Oh, not any time soon.  We’re too busy this quarter.  We’re thinking maybe April.”

“Sounds like fun!”

The three of them started discussing who they could ask to play music and make artwork, naming people I did not know.  At one point, Alaina asked, “Greg, what do you think?”

“Oh,” I said, unaware that I was included in this discussion since it seemed to revolve around U-Life people.  “That sounds like a lot of fun!  Keep me posted.”  I left out the detail that I did not like coffee; it still sounded like fun even without coffee.

At around quarter to three, I stood up and said, “I should probably get going.”

“Me too,” Ben replied.

“You know what’s really funny?” I added.  “When I sat down here two hours ago, it was all JCF people at this table.  And the table gradually transitioned into U-Life people.”

“That is funny!” Alaina said.  “Greg, you just have a lot of friends.”

“I guess I do.  Have a good weekend, you guys!”

“Thanks!” Whitney replied.  “You too!”


For the last year, I would have said that Dr. Thomas was my favorite mathematics professor, but now it was a toss-up between her and Dr. Samuels.  Dr. Samuels was a much better teacher than most of the professors I had.  His was the only math class I ever took that did not feel like just a lecture.  He called on students at random, like a high school teacher might, and he would pause class a few times each hour and tell us to turn to our neighbors and summarize what we just learned.  This helped, especially on days when I could not stay awake.

Four other students came to Dr. Samuels’ office hours that day; apparently I was not the only one who needed refreshing on these topics.  From this class, I was beginning to see geometry in a new light.  My high school geometry textbook had said that every logical system had to begin with undefined terms, and that “point,” “line,” and “plane” were undefined terms in Euclidean geometry.  Why were they undefined, I thought?  It seemed lazy.  One could at least describe the concepts of points, lines, and planes using English, right?

After Dr. Samuels’ class, the concept of undefined terms made more sense.  Geometry begins with basic postulates, such as that two points determine a line.  The terms are undefined because these assumptions determine all the properties that a geometer would need to know about points and lines.  Furthermore, one could construct a geometric system where “point” and “line” were understood to mean something else, and all of the theorems would still apply in that system, since they were based on those basic assumptions.  If “point” were understood to mean what would normally be called a line, and “line” were understood to mean what would normally be called a point, some of the basic postulates would still be true.  Two lines, in the real world sense, determine one point.  This thought blew my mind.

After Dr. Samuels answered my question, he said, “By the way, Greg, can you stick around for a while?  I want to ask you something after we’re done here.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I was going to listen to everyone else’s questions anyway.”  I felt a little nervous over the next twenty minutes, wondering what Dr. Samuels wanted to talk to me about.  Was I in trouble?  I did my best to concentrate on what my classmates were asking.

After the last person left Dr. Samuels’ office, he said, “So, Greg.  What are your plans for after graduation?  I always ask this of strong students like you.”

“I’m not really sure,” I replied sheepishly.  If Dr. Samuels thought I was a strong student, I should have a better answer than that.  “I’ve been trying to figure that out.  I went to the Math Club’s career fair, and nothing really stood out to me.  Dr. Thomas told me about REU programs, so I’m thinking about that for this summer, to get a sense of what grad school would be like.”

“Have you ever considered being a teacher?  I’ve done some work with secondary education, and I’ve heard the way you explain things to others in class.”

Of all the reasons Dr. Samuels might have wanted to talk to me individually, this was not what I was expecting.  For years, I had said that I would never be a teacher, because of the politics involved in public schools.  Many of my high school teachers were active and outspoken politically, with views that I disagreed with.  I had always assumed that I would stay in school forever and become a mathematician, but my disillusionment with the career fair had left my future plans undecided.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I didn’t think much about teaching at first, but everything feels up in the air now.  And I work as a tutor at the Learning Skills Center, and I do enjoy that.”

“If you ever want to give it a try, you can get two units on your transcript as Math 197.  You’ll help out in a classroom at Jeromeville High for the quarter, and at the end you’ll write a short paper about what you did and what you learned.  If you’re trying to figure out your career plans, it would be a great way to immerse yourself in the world of teaching.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It sounds like it.  When do I have to let you know by?”

“Sometime next week should be good.  Think about it.”

“I will.  Thanks for letting me know about this.”

“You’re welcome.  This state is always looking for good teachers, especially ones with strong mathematics backgrounds.”

“Yeah.”

I left Dr. Samuels’s office and walked toward the bus stop.  This was a new wrinkle in the fabric of my life.  Could I be a teacher?  I tried to picture myself in a classroom with thirty sullen teenagers who called me Mr. Dennison.  I was sure it would be challenging, but it could be fun and enjoyable as well.  I enjoyed my tutoring job, I always enjoyed explaining math to people, and I had been spending a lot of time around younger people through volunteering with the youth group at church.

“Greg!” an enthusiastic female voice shouted as I approached the bus stop.  I saw Yesenia Fonseca, one of the first students I ever had as a tutor, waving at me.  “What’s up?”

“Just thinking,” I said.  “My professor just asked me if I had ever considered being a teacher.  I’d never really pictured myself as a teacher.”

“You’d totally be a great teacher!” Yesenia replied.  “I had another tutor last spring quarter, and she wasn’t good at explaining at all, like you were.”

“He said I could get units for helping in a classroom at Jeromeville High.  I’m thinking I might do it.”

“You should!”

Yesenia’s bus arrived just seconds before mine; we said goodbye and headed home.  Shawn, one of my roommates, was studying to be a math teacher.  He was doing his student teaching at Laguna Ciervo High School, across the Drawbridge in a suburban neighborhood just outside of Capital City.  When I got home, I told Shawn about what Dr. Samuels had said.

“You should go for it,” Shawn said.  “I think you’d be a good teacher.  We definitely need good teachers.  The teacher I’m working with is terrible.”

“Oh yeah?”

“He’s just mean.  He keeps telling kids, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’  I mean, I get you have to establish authority, but there’s got to be a better way.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t see you like that.  I think you should try it.”

All weekend, I could not get this off my mind.  This had been a productive day, in more ways than one.  I had gotten a lot of work done sitting in the Memorial Union.  I had learned of an upcoming party at Alaina and Whitney’s house, another connection with a new group of friends.  And Dr. Samuels had given me something to think about regarding the future.  Me, Mr. Dennison, teaching high school kids about algebra and geometry.

Sure, Shawn was not having the best experience with student teaching.  But I was not Shawn.  Hopefully I would have a better experience.  Yesenia had told me that I would make a good teacher, and as a former tutee, she would know.  I would tell Dr. Samuels on Monday that I wanted to help out at Jeromeville High; the worst that could happen was that I would discover that I would not like it.  I would still get two units for it.  It was an option to explore, and that was what I needed right now.


Author’s note: Who was your favorite teacher, and why?


4 thoughts on “February 21, 1997. A productive day, in more ways than one. (#121)

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