I just got the news that one of my high school math coaches, Chuck Hamberg, passed away. He was retired by the time I got to IMSA, but still made an impression on my green 14-year-old self, co-coaching our little team of 'shmen with great gusto alongside Dr. Condie. After several years of hungrily burning the midnight oil studying math (the kind they didn't teach in school) by myself, hiding in the bathroom in the middle of the night to read books, these guys were the ones who first taught me how to do math, how to spin proofs and play with numbers and ideas in a way that's never left me since.
It was the first time I'd heard good mathematicians talk to each other about math and do math, joyously, in front of a group of awestruck and excited kids. This sounds simple, but... when your prior exposure to math classes has largely been full of rote stuff, watching adults having fun with it is absolutely spellbinding - and heartening, if you've grown up wondering whether any other real (i.e. not in books and/or dead) people also actually like this stuff. And to watch adults having the kind of dialogue I wanted to grow up to speak - but had never heard before and therefore couldn't even picture - that was awesome.
Mr. Hamberg also gave me a valuable lesson in teaching. The summer I turned 16, I taught math camp for the first time. As one of the most experienced students in the group (I was a rising senior, so I wasn't that experienced), I was in charge of the Number Theory team. We'd worked hard on our curriculum all school year, and the first day went well - we taught 3 classes, identical curricula, 1 before lunch and 2 after. And then we pulled out the curriculum for the second day... and failed. The kids (our students were just a few years younger than I was) blanked out, weren't engaged, weren't excited... and we had lunchtime to figure out how to turn this around before sections 2 and 3 hit. My team was looking to me for guidance; I was the leader, I was supposed to know what to do. I had no clue.
Shamefaced, I slunk over to Mr. Hamberg's lunch table, sat down beside him, and apologized for being a failure. He and Dr. Condie asked why, and I explained the situation and that we didn't know what to do, wavering between resigned dejection and mild panic the entire time. "Well, what were you trying to teach them?" Something about Pascal's triangle, I replied. Anything, really. "Lunch is ending. Come watch us and then tell us afterwards what it is you saw us do."
They proceeded to pull off this spectacular class on Pascal's triangle, Fibonacci numbers, the Sierpinski triangle, and all these lovely little things tied into that sort of stuff - the kids were practically leaping out of their seats, shouting questions... and then during the break between sections, they walked up to us and said "okay, now you teach the next section."
"But... but..." I sputtered, "I don't know what to say! I... didn't prepare that curricula!"
"Neither did we." They backtracked and explained how teaching wasn't a script - how you knew the material, and then roamed around it with your students, helping them dive into interesting things, roving on the fly. "All the stuff we just covered," Mr. Hamberg pointed out, "you played with during your first year on math team. You know this stuff." And then they left, and the students poured in, and my team looked at me expectantly.
And I proceeded to lead my crew through team-teaching one of the best math classes I have ever taught in my entire life to date.
8 years later, I'm still proud of it. We were sailing by the seat of our pants, but I really did know the material, and it was exhilarating improvising it and knowing it was okay to do that, that you could make it up, that you weren't doing it COMPLETELY WRONG!!! if you didn't follow a script, and that... kids get really excited about math if you do that. Wow. Excited students, learning stuff... I was on a teaching high.
I went up to them afterwards all excited with this revelation - probably babbling something like oh my gosh you make it up and it works you totally make it up and it works and it's okay and they were so excited and and and PASCAL'S TRIANGLE!!! and the ideas lead so many places and you just go! and Mr. Hamberg smiled and told me that I was a teacher.
And so I am.
Thanks, Chuck. We'll miss you.