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Confrontation in the Classroom

Updated on November 27, 2017
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I have been teaching mathematics in an Australian High School since 1982, and I am a contributing author to many mathematics text books.


It was one of those hot summer days, just before lunch. The air-conditioning was running a poor second to the humidity and windows were flung open in anticipation of the predicted cool change. Students languidly copied from the board whilst I explained how to solve quadratic equations. I might just as well have been describing how useful it is to make ice water in the arctic. Some feigned interest in what I was saying; most were just waiting for the bell.

The door slowly opened and all were thankful for the respite this event promised. The Principal and a tall boy entered the room.

"Hello, everyone," the Principal began. "We have a new student. This is Manny Erds. He will be in your class. I'm sure all of you will help him become a part of our school community."

While the Principal was addressing the class, the boy remained completely motionless, seemingly staring at some object through the window. The Principal finished his speech, smiled beatifically at Manny, gave me a "please take care of him" look and left the room.

Manny's demeanour was intimidating, almost menacing. Taller than average, of slim build and dark features, his physique was a product of his ancestral inheritance; a concave nose, pointed chin and prominent ears. Long hair, earrings and Goth attire completed the image.

"Hi, Manny," I began, "It's nearly lunchtime. There's an empty seat over there." I pointed to a desk next to Jimmy. "I'll talk to you next lesson about what we are doing at the moment."

During lunch I was briefed. Manny was an orphan and was looked after by his grandmother. He had been in trouble and at his previous school was asked to 'move on'. His reports were not enviable; 'frequently truant, unco-operative, inattentive and prone to daydreaming' were prominent behavioural descriptors.

Next day, Manny sat alone at the back of the classroom, near the window. He had somehow acquired our school diary, but he had no books. I began my spiel.

"Okay, today we will look at the relationship between the solutions to a quadratic equation and the determinant , where -"

"The discriminant," a voice interrupted. It was Manny.

"I'm sorry, Manny. What do you mean?" I asked, slightly apprehensive.

"The discriminant," he repeated softly. Immediately I realised that he was right. Why can't I ever remember the difference between discriminant and determinant? By this time the class was totally absorbed. They saw the sword of Damocles. They wanted more. Could I redeem myself?

"Yes, of course," I agreed and quickly added, "but if we have a pair of simultaneous equations then we could use the properties of the determinant."

I tried to be convincing, hoping that the class and Manny would believe. "No," Manny continued.

"The determinant is only valid for linear expressions." Game, Set and Match!

"Okay. I'll check it up," was all I could meekly offer as a reply. "How did he know?" was my summary of the situation later that day.

During the next class, while the others worked from their textbooks, I placed a sheet of paper in front of Manny. On it I had written lim n=>inf (1+1/n)^n whose solution is a mathematical number represented by the symbol e, named after the mathematician, Euler. Manny stared at it for a moment and then gazed through the window. When the lesson was nearly over I retrieved the sheet. It was exactly as I had left it. However, I noticed he had festooned the school logo on his diary with intricate geometrical designs and, with insightful penmanship, had changed our school motto, "Concordia Prorsum", meaning "Forward In Harmony", to "Forewarned Disharmony". In the middle he had written e. Euler would have been proud!

Next day, I challenged him with the task of applying a complex mathematical operation to the expression sinx/x, the solution being the value of the mathematical symbol pi (pronounced pie). Manny rose to his feet, walked to the front, deftly grabbed the marker from my hand and artistically sketched a pie, complete with sinuous curves representing steam emanating from its pores. The rest of the class joyfully saw this creation as graffiti and a challenge to my authority. I realised that this mathematical game of cat and mouse could not continue indefinitely, even if it meant the class was to lose their anti-hero.

One day I asked Manny to stay back after class. He remained seated, watching students leave the room.

"Manny," I began, "I understand that there has been friction between us since your arrival. Is there a reason for that?"

Manny remained silent, his eyes fixed on the clock hanging on the wall behind me.

"You have an amazing gift for mathematics, and I really want to encourage you to go as far as you can with it. I'm sure your grandmother will agree with me."

"Leave her out of it!" Manny replied harshly. "She's the only one that cares."

"What do you mean?" I asked, truly perplexed.

And then it happened. Tears formed and followed a slow path down Manny's face.

"My parents dumped me with my grandmother when I was five years old," he uttered between sobs. "They wanted to be left alone to enjoy their alcohol and drugs."

"Where are they now?" I asked, with tears forming in my eyes.

"Dead! What do you expect with that lifestyle?"

We talked for a long time, with Manny doing most of the talking. As he talked I could see the transformation occurring; a rough, threatening exterior was being replaced by a quiet, thoughtful plea for understanding and forgiveness.

Manny did not remain long at our school after our talk. We both thought it was best that he move on. So what did happen? With our school's endorsement he was accepted at a prestigious university. Now, five years later, as I nervously wait to see him, I must remember his full title; Manny Erds, Professor of Mathematics.


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