I sat in my seat, as my new grade six classmates found theirs. At the front of the class our new math teacher stood watching us, "Come on, class. We don't have all day. Get settled please."
Mr. Stevens was the strangest teacher we ever encountered. At the beginning of the school year, he rented the basement of a house on the other side of the cove from our school. He drove a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, but usually jogged to school - a rare and strange thing in the early 1970's in Nova Scotia. There were rumors that he flossed daily, which was later witnessed in class after he ate his healthy lunch of vegetables and fruit. All of these habits were things we were not used to in our small fishing village.
The bell rang.
"Ok, class. Welcome to a new school year. I'm Mr. Stevens and I'm sure I'll learn all your names in no time." He walked around the class handing out math books. When he was done, he returned to the front of the class and looked at us. We stared back. "What are you waiting for? Get started?" He said.
We looked at him - confused. Wasn't he going to teach us?
"Is there something wrong with your ears? You're not all deaf are you?"
One brave soul at the back of the class asked what we all wanted to know. "Mr. Stevens, aren't you going to teach us?"
"Rubbish!" Mr. Stevens replied. "You're smart kids. Open your books and get to it. If you have any trouble or any questions raise your hand, and I'll come help you."
My friend Paul and I exchanged glances and opened our books to the first chapter. A competition began. Paul and I spent all our free time at home working through the lessons. Mr. Stevens, true to his word, helped anyone who was stuck on a problem. It was his clue a lesson was needed. He'd stop us from what we were doing to teach all the students what one struggled with. It was a strange method of teaching, but it was very effective. He only had to push a few of the less disciplined students to work through the book. Not Paul and I. We worked like dogs and finished two and one half math books that first year.
It was a turning point in my life. Mr. Stevens made me realized I was good at math and also able to reach the top of any class I attended. In our small elementary school, I studied under his guidance for two years.
Mr. Stevens was a strange man, but I loved him. Monty Python's Flying Circus was a popular television show back then. The actors brought the best and most warped of British humor into our Canadian lives. Mr. Stevens would often act out one of their skits in front of the class. He mimicked John Cleese walking the German goose step and often recited line-for-line a skit for the latest show. Some thought he was strange, and I guess he was, but he knew how to make a math lesson interesting.
In the spring of our ninth grade year, we were told to chose the classes we would take in our first year of high school. There were three choices for every subject: general, academic, and advanced. Mr. Stevens made it quite clear, general classes were for the students who were going no where. Academic classes were middle of the road and would get you to university. The advanced classes were college prep classes. You studied the same topics but were given more work and harder challenges. Paul and I looked at our choices. General classes sounded easy. "Rubbish!" Mr. Steven's scolded us. "You will take the advanced class in math. You're too smart not to."
We compromised and took the academic class. During my second week of high school math I raised my hand. My new teacher, Mr. West, also known as wild, wild West because of his temper, came to my desk. "What can I do for you?"
"Well, I'm not sure what they want me to do in this chapter. Can you explain it to me?"
He stared at my book. "We're not doing that chapter yet? Good gosh! You're six chapters ahead of the class."
"I'm sorry, Sir. I've always done my math this way."
"Don't be sorry, young man." He leaned closer to me. The garlic he had for lunch made my eyes tear. "Look, Mike. Do you have fifth period free? If you do, I have an advanced class then. You need to be in that class."
"I do, but ..." I began to protest.
He cut me off. "Mike, this is not the class for you. You need to be in the advance class. I'll work it out with the guidance teacher. Be here tomorrow at the new time. You're through in this class."
I thrived in my new environment. I finally had classmates with the same passion for math as I did. It was all because of whacky Mr. Stevens, the man who gave us a book and said, "Get started!"
I've carried his lesson with me all my life. Whenever I am faced with a new challenge, I think of my first day in grade six math. Instead of sitting and staring at the challenge, I just get started. Before I know, it the challenge has been overcome.
I just get started !
- Michael T. Smith
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