It’s not lost on me that the math problem Mr. Lee was trying to explain on the overhead projector, was indeed, over my head. I suppose it was this focus on words and other such artistic attractions on my three ring binder that kept me from understanding the equation. We were all told to secretly write down the answer and walk it up to him. One by one I saw my classmates make the trip. Some racing with delight. Others tripping back to their desks in defeat. My hair, still wet from swimming class the period before, dripped on my blank paper. The bell rang and with a giant sigh of relief we all got up to head toward the door. No, he said, raising his one arm. Even with one sleeve folded and pinned to his shirt in that arm’s absence, he was the most intimidating teacher we had at Central Junior High School. He said we couldn’t leave without the answer. The few that had gotten it, laughed and raced into the filling hallway. Had I spent less time calculating my route to Mr. Temple’s Social Studies class, and more time on the problem, perhaps I would have gotten the answer. Mr. Lee made a few marks on the plastic with his red pen. This apparently was enough to get a few more students out the door, but the rest of us remained. He winced at the phantom pain of his empty sleeve. We did the same for our answerless sheets of paper.
He shut the projector off. Looked at me. Directly at me. I smiled — not because I was acting “smart.” (That ship had sailed.) No, I smiled to tell him it was ok. We’d do better tomorrow. I smiled because we were neighbors after all. He couldn’t keep us here forever. People knew my schedule. I rode the bus with his children. My mom had Saturday coffee with his wife Yvonne. He wrote the answer down on the hall passes that he gave us to get to our next class.
The answers weren’t always clear. But we were always learning. You couldn’t help it. The examples were everywhere. In every room. The courage, patience, and strength displayed each day from those who stood in front of us. Willing us to a better understanding.
Later that evening. When my hair was dry. And my thoughts were clear. I looked at the problem again. It made sense. “Showing my work,” I penciled my way to the answer that he had given. After dinner, I walked the gravel of Van Dyke road to his house. I could see the lights on in their dining room. Lincoln, Tracy and Tony were still eating. I printed my name in the upper right hand corner of the paper and placed it on their front porch.
My mother was standing in the well lit doorway as I walked up the drive. She smiled. There was so much to learn.