I was fifteen and awkward and insecure and shy.
Having four years in an itty-bitty private school before transitioning to public high school proved to be quite the shock. I had a few friends, which helped, but deep down I was tense. Freshman geometry class became my perpetual bad dream with a chain-smoking, frosted haired teacher who abhorred questions, and whose complete lack of patience made me wonder why on earth she was ever allowed to lead a classroom of any kind.
So, on the first day of tenth grade I swallowed my panic as I exited homeroom and entered my Algebra 1-A classroom. The “A” stood for average.
First one in, I sat down and pretended to search for something, anything in my bag. Tears threatened. Math had never been my friend.
“Hello there, young lady!” boomed a voice. I looked up.
My new teacher. Mr. Munroe.
He could not have been any different from chain-smoking geometry teacher. Tall and large and freckled, with a Santa Claus belly, he reminded me of a fifty year old version of John Candy with a wise-guy smile.
Others drifted in to class as the bell rang.
Mr. Munroe stood by the blackboard.
“Let’s get one thing straight. I am the teacher and you are my pupils.”
Snickering all around. He grinned.
“We will work on algebra in this classroom. I like class participation and I love to joke. First we do math, and then sometimes we will have conversation.” He looked over the top of his glasses.
“My goal is to help my students understand this math and not be scared of it.”
Let me tell you. We worked hard that year. Mr. Munroe was the master of the classroom. We were to be punctual. No speaking while he was teaching. Raising our hands and respecting others in the classroom was paramount.
Also, no “almost” answers in his classroom.
“Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” he quipped weekly.
Mr. Munroe might have been patient with math questions, but he was not patient with students who crossed the line. We endured his quick Irish temper more than once.
One day, Megan, a bit of a wild thing, kept passing notes and talking while Mr. Munroe was scratching out problems on the chalkboard. I felt my heartbeat quicken; I just knew he was going to call her out.
As he was working the problem, she kept up the whispering. He did not turn from the chalkboard, but his hand stopped moving.
The classroom grew still, and no one budged.
His voice, now louder: “I said get out of my classroom.”
“NOW!” he hollered.
Megan picked up her books and fled.
He turned and looked at us. “No.Talking.While. I. Am.Teaching. Got it?”
We got it.
“Now, let’s start this problem over. If x=3, then….”
And so it went.
Towards the end of the term, I realized that I was actually understanding algebra. My grades were mainly B’s, which was a tall victory in my world.
And then one Monday something was different. We came into class, where Mr. Munroe was quietly leaning on his desk.
“Turn to page 198.”
He stared off into the distance.
“Nope. Close your books. No math today. Today you will get my two cents.”
And we did. The night before, a teenager in a nearby town had died and killed someone else because of his drinking and driving. So Mr. Munroe took the entire 40 minutes of class to warn about the stupidity of such decisions; decisions that could in one split second change our lives permanently. He spoke to us from a place of deep concern.
He had our complete attention.
30 years have elapsed since that year of average algebra, and I have decided there was nothing average about it. To this day, I can hear Mr. Munroe’s voice clearly: “Almost only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades.” I still remember how to solve for ‘x’. And I still remember what it feels like to have a teacher care deeply about his students’ life outside of algebra.
Thank you, good sir.