Friday, September 10, 2010
One assumes that both nature and nurture got in their licks in making me the man I am today, but one nurturer who knew how to punch nature's buttons was my sixth-grade teacher.
I attended an old-fashioned K-8 elementary school before going directly to a four-year high school. No traumatic middle-school experience for me! My elementary school had a rotation system for morning classes for sixth graders through eighth graders. We'd start out in our home room, where the sixth graders learned math from the sixth-grade teacher, the seventh graders learned English from the seventh-grade teacher, and the eighth graders learned science from the eighth-grade teacher. Then we'd rotate, all shifting from one classroom to another while the teachers stayed in place, teaching math, English, and science to their colleagues' students. One more rotation, and we students had all had our daily doses of math, English, and science.
I know what you're thinking. I told you that the sixth-grade teacher taught math, so that's what you're focused on, particularly since you know I grew up to be a math teacher. You think he inspired me to teach math.
I'm not at all sure that he did.
Sure, I was entertained when he mischievously wrote “commutative” on the chalkboard and told us its definition. It wasn't in our math syllabus at all, but he was studying up on New Math, which was soon to be introduced in our school. I remember being interested and intrigued, while I'm sure most of my classmates were thanking God that they would be the last to use the old textbooks rather than the first to use the new ones.
But this is not about New Math.
It's about Mr. Fischer's library. Perhaps he planted a mathematical seed or two while teaching me a subject that I absorbed with ease, but I remember him more for fostering my love of reading. His shelves were laden with an eclectic collection of books. He would read to the entire class right after the lunch hour, settling us down before the afternoon's lessons. (For a few of us, that turned into nap time.) I remember particularly his reading of a science fiction novel about three young men who get stranded on Mars, turning the book into a serial that we worked through over the course of a few weeks.
It was probably a good thing he chose to read that instead of his copy of The Outline of History by H. G. Wells. That title fascinated me, because the hefty tome was obviously not an outline. (The seventh-grade teacher had taught us to outline, but Wells had clearly not learned that lesson.)
To my eyes, however, the real treasure trove was a standalone bookcase placed against the east wall of the classroom. It wasn't a large bookcase, standing only three or four feet tall. Its shelves were filled with histories and biographies, all of them in volumes of matching size and format. I cannot remember which publisher had decided to repackage existing books or commission new ones to create a uniform collection of octavo-sized books, their cloth covers rendered in various muted colors (white, beige, pink, peach, baby blue, and pale green). There were dozens of them. Maybe fifty. Even sixty? (That would be four shelves of fifteen each, which strikes a memory chord. But I'm not sure.)
To my surprise, Mr. Fischer told me I could borrow his books and actually take them home. Once I started, I could not stop. I read about Thomas Jefferson, the French Revolution, Daniel Boone (who did not wear a coonskin cap!), Davy Crockett (who did), Lewis & Clark, Christopher Columbus, the Wright brothers, Simon Bolivar, and Joan of Arc, among many others.
Under the impulse of this memory, I recently spent some times in the stacks of a university library, sitting amidst the shelves of the Joan of Arc biographies (DC103 in the Library of Congress cataloging system), riffling through those published before 1960 to see if I could spot the word “coddle” in the chapter on Les Tourelles (just before the capture of Orléans). It was a quixotic effort and it failed. If I had found it, I would have searched for the publication history of that particular biography to see whether I could learn when it got into that set that belonged to Mr. Fischer. And perhaps learn the nature of that set itself.
It's just idle curiosity now, but it would amuse me to see the list of books in that collection. However many there were and whatever their subjects were, I read every one during sixth grade.
So many books! So little time.