A friend of mine went on a date recently and mentioned that while the person was nice, there wasn’t going to be a second date. Not abnormal, that’s how a lot of first dates go. Then he also mentioned that the movie they saw on this first date was terrible.
And this triggered one of my favorite memories of a high school teacher who was a role model to me, so I wanted to share.
When I was in high school we had a math teacher (MT) that defied description. He was really wacky, did his own thing and owned it, and was a super big geek. But totally cool at the same time. MT was confident and well spoken. This was the late 90s and the internet was just forming, so it wasn’t like there were a lot of geeky role models on my horizon. So this man was really important in my life. I was also attending a Catholic girl’s school (CGS), so people in general, were pretty mainstream.
MT was the faculty advisor for the Environmental Club, the Chess Club, and the Electric Guitar Club (that’s right, we didn’t have a rock band at CGS . An ‘Electric Guitar Club’ sounds less like something that puts you at risk for a life of reckless abandon). In that club he pulled out a Beatles Song Book that had a song in it called Tandoori Chicken (a quick google shows that Ronnie Spector recorded it at Apple Studios, and later George Harrison did as well). I still know the lyrics. I can not tell you HOW COOL I thought it was that we sat there and tried to play this ridiculous song the Beatles wrote. “Tandoori Chicken. Tandoori Chicken. Tandoori Chicken. Tandoori Chicken. Tandoori Chicken and a Great Big Bottle Of Wine.”
MT owned ferrets. He rode his bike up the very steep road to our school, and in physics we had to solve problems about whether a school bus that started off behind him would ever run him over. This man wore a crushed green velvet tuxedo when he chaperoned the prom. BECAUSE HE THOUGHT IT WAS AWESOME. I have a photo of MT wearing the head of a green chicken costume I owned, because he indirectly encouraged us to be ourselves and made me feel comfortable enough to bring a green chicken costume to school*. He was doing the kinds of things I did not see most adults doing.
And it wasn’t just being weird. He was smart. And he really cared about education. MT ended up leaving our school to go back and get his PhD, and now he’s a professor (DrMT). A professor that still works with math-ed students and has continued to work on programs that encourage young women to engage with math and science.
My favorite memory of MT is the story he told us of what I will call
THE EPIC DATE.
When MT was in high school, there was a girl that was beautiful. MT thought she was amazing, but he was this awkward, weird kid who did his own thing. After pining after this girl for a long time, he finally got up the guts to ask her out on a date. And she said yes! So he decided to take her out to a movie. There was a new movie coming out that he heard would be good.
That movie was Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Now imagine you are a geeky high school kid in 1992 and hearing this story from your teacher. He got to take the pretty girl to see the BEST movie…when it first came out on the big screen! He saw Holy Grail on the big screen! (At this point we’ve all forgotten about the date and are just in geek-awe).
So the movie started. And if you remember, there are captions during the opening credits. Funny captions in fake Swedish. MTstarts laughing. His date does not. He continues laughing as the credits go on, and she looks at him and says ‘Why are you laughing? This isn’t funny’. So my teacher who got to see Holy Grail ON THE BIG SCREEN, in an attempt to be nice to his date, basically does everything he can to hold in his laughter through the entire movie. Can you even IMAGINE? The first time you see Holy Grail! You can’t laugh at anything because every time you do your date looks more annoyed. And you’re the one who picked the movie, so it’s kind of your fault.
After the movie, he tried to recover the date. British humor, after all, is not for everyone. He asked her ‘What kind of things DO you find funny?’ And she said ‘Gilligan’s Island.’
And he never asked her out again.
And looking back, I see that as the moment where I realized ‘There are people out in the world who value someone with my sense of humor and my interest in learning cool new things. And some of the people who I think are the MOST INTERESTING adults I have ever known like these things too. So embracing that part of me is totally okay.’ I also saw that, not only was it okay to be a weirdo geek, but there were guys who, if given a choice, would rather, date a weirdo geek than date the most gorgeous girl in their class. And while I hate to admit that those types of things had an influnce, of course it did. I was a 15 year old girl without a boyfriend at a Catholic school that had us planning out our weddings in one of our religion class assignments. It would be a lie to say I didn’t wonder about things like that. In that moment, I basically learned that I was fine as I was. And I believed him.
So now I’m the teacher. And I am a LOT like MT. My students know I read weird science stories online. They know I love bad movies and indy music – because I play them clips vaguely related to Anthropology (like Bjork’s ‘Human Behavior’) at the beginning of class. Most of the students already have the role models they are looking for. But some of those students have awesome smart wackos inside that they aren’t letting out. And to be a good scientist you have to be willing to think outside the box, push the boundaries and be willing to take some risks. So I’m letting them know it’s okay if they want to do that.
Last year I took some female students (mostly Elementary Education majors) to Kansas City for an Alternative Spring Break Trip. While we were there, I offered to take them to the Kansas City Juggling Club. My friend Greg (who is also, interestingly, a high school math teacher) is active with them. Four of the six students took me up on it – it sounded utterly strange and slightly intriguing to them. When we got there, we found a room with a few kids, but mostly people in their 20s + juggling balls and pins, hula hooping, yo-yo-ing, etc… I’m pretty sure they felt like they were behind the scenes at a carnival. Everyone was super nice, and several of them spent the evening teaching us the basics of different types of juggling. Every single one of us bought a set of homemade juggling balls to take back to Michigan.
And when the evening was up, the jugglers were going out to a pizza place and they invited us along. My students were really excited to go, so I bought them their first Italian sodas and we sat around with about 8 of these folks for another hour or so. They taught my students how to count binary on their fingers. They taught them more complex versions of ‘pat your head and rub your belly’ type activities which were really hard to do (but the jugglers could do really well). They told them riddles. And Greg and another fellow talked education with the students too. I still remember more than one of my students looking at me after a new riddle or trick like ‘who ARE these amazing people who are adults that do really smart things FOR FUN?! Why have I never met people like this before!?’ Because these jugglers did not fit the stereotype of a nerd that the students expected. They were funny, they could hold a conversation. One was super buff. One was covered in tattoos. And there were a lot of them, they were a community. And that was my moment. I felt like maybe I’d given a few more students the okay to be ‘normal’ adults that do weird, smart things for fun. It was a great gift that was given to me, so I’m glad to pass it on.
You never know who is learning things from watching you or interacting with you. I don’t think this means people have to be on their best behavior or anything, but be genuine. There may be someone who picks up on it and gets a little more comfortable in his/her own shell because they saw that you were okay too.
* The town I grew up in is called Green Brook. Our high school mascot was the Bengal, but the elementary school didn’t have a mascot. For some reason unknown to me (probably cheap fabric), when my brother was in 6th grade or so, my mother designed a ‘Green Brook Chicken’ halloween costume. It was amazing. It was basically a chicken, but the fabric was green. We both outgrew the body, but the head was big enough, so we kept it. Sadly it has since disappeared.