Lessons Beyond Math

As part of my Gratitude Project I wrote the following letter to Mrs. Margaret Marcou which I share with her permission.

Dear Margaret;

I believe teachers teach more than their subject matter.  They may teach manners- i.e. how to behave in this classroom.  They also impart something of their own’s life lessons or experiences to their students. As students we may be deaf to this other lessons because we were focused on the math homework due or why does Jane never sit with me anymore. As a student of yours during two years of math class I came away with more than how logarithms works, drawing vector diagrams and the basics of trigonometry.  Here’s the short list and I follow with a memory associated with each item:

  • Gender inequity exists in our language usage and there are ways to combat it
  • There are no stupid questions
  • There’s more than one way to look at an event

You made me aware of gender inequity in language, probably the first adult to point it out. The memory banks play back the following.  “Class Monday, Wednesday and Friday it is ‘Everyone take her pencil’ and Tuesday and Thursday it is ‘Everyone take his pencil.’  This is an attempt to make up for the years of discrimination. I have checked with Dr Forrest- its grammatically correct.” The year was 1977, 10th grade Algebra II-Trig. I later became aware of “man hours” and the nearly ubiquitous usage of “guys.”  I regularly pointed out in any printed material that “man hours” was not acceptable. As the daughter of a Brooklynite where “You guys” was like breathing it took my five years to change to “folks” as my generic.  For reasons of your own you decided to use language to make girls feel more welcome and perhaps raise the awareness to the boys. I’m a social linguist fanatic and you started me down this important path. Language reflects the culture; to change the culture you start changing the language.

I was teacher’s pet calling another student’s question stupid. You quickly trounced on me “Anne there are no stupid questions.” It stung, but you were right.  You can’t have a learning environment if questions are treated as signs of stupidity. Admitting a lack of understanding is as just a valid example of intelligence then understanding it right away. Learning never stops and in a work environment questions should be encouraged as well. I have quoted you in work meetings as follows “Folks, per Mrs Marcou, my Math teacher, there are no stupid questions”

In eleventh grade, Pre-Calculus was the first class of the day. On a rainy winter morning I tromped into the class room and declared “I hate rain.” You shared that your husband loved rain because he grew up in a more desert like climate-  somehow Egypt is in this memory. It made me think. Today, while  I sometimes dislike the rain I know there is someone else who likes it. Passing judgement on something is a reflection on the judger.

Having strong math skills helped in becoming an engineer as well as practicing the craft. These lessons beyond Math have stayed with me as well. I believe I have incorporated them into my everyday life.

Sincerely,

Anne Meixner, PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering

Dear Reader, please share your comments and stories that are sparked by this piece. Has there been an influential school teacher in your life? See Contribute for how you can share a story at The Engineers’ Daughter.

 

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