“Think about what things mean.” This was my advice to my son as I drove him to his little slice of hell — school. That particular day would be more hellish than usual as he had both his Geometry and Science final exams. Like me, he would almost rather have a colonoscopy, including the dreaded prep, than be forced to learn math or science. I felt for him, so I offered him the words of advice that got me through high school math. Mr. Scott said them almost daily. Whenever he would write a super long equation on the board and look out at sea of confused dog looks, he would simply say, “Think about what things mean.” This simple philosophy has gotten me through a lot more than math.
Mr. Scott was my favorite teacher even though he taught my most hated subject – math. I had him for Algebra in ninth grade, and again for Integrated Math my senior year. As a teacher, he was the perfect combination of firm, professional, and funny. He knew his subject, but he didn’t just stand there and drone on and on about variables and the order of operations. No. He always kept our attention, even if he had to wear a dress.
Yes, I said a dress. No. Mr. Scott was not a drag queen, not that there’s anything wrong with that. He was a Vietnam veteran with a permanent five o’clock shadow who usually dressed like a gas station attendant. I’m serious. He had a bunch of gas station attendant shirts with his name, Frank, on the front. They were from all different stations. I used to sit there and try to imagine where he got them. He couldn’t have just ordered them on Amazon because it was 1987 and Amazon, or the Internet, or laptops, or iPhones, didn’t exist yet. No. He would have had to work at all of the gas stations to get a shirt. Either that or he toured the country finding gas station attendants named Frank who needed some extra cash. No matter how he got them, I wasn’t sure why he wore them. Maybe it was to remind himself that no matter how horrible high school students were, teaching was still better than pumping gas. (Young people, gas station attendants used to pump people’s gas for them.) Whatever the reason, he wore them almost daily, except, as I mentioned, when he wore dresses.
One particular Halloween (See, I told you he wasn’t a drag queen.), I remember walking into his class on the second floor of the old 600 hall at South Broward High School and almost walking right into his magic wand. That’s right. Mr. Scott, Frank from the Shell station, was dressed as Glinda the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz. I couldn’t help but laugh all the way to my seat. He just stood there and looked at me like, “What?” I took my seat expecting an easy day of not really doing math. I was wrong.
Mr. Scott began class by walking carefully across the classroom in his sparkly shoes and shiny dress, and pointing to the board with his wand. He called on me, of course, and said, “Lisa, what is the quadratic formula?” I looked at him like he was nuts, but he insisted that I say the formula out loud while he grabbed a piece of chalk with his wandless hand. I’m happy to say that I got it ALMOST right. I forgot to say “the opposite of” before I said “B.” I’m sure at age 41 I still know MOST of the quadratic formula because of this experience.
I never grew to love math, but I sure remembered it better after watching a man with a five o’clock shadow in a dress teach it. Over the years, Mr. Scott donned many costumes, some of them dresses and some of them more masculine, like when he was Vince Fontaine in the school’s production of Grease. No matter how he was dressed, he always took the time to slow down and show us HOW to think about what things mean.
I kept that in my head during the SAT and I actually scored higher in Math than in English. (Note: I ended up becoming an English professor.) I kept thinking about what things meant through college, marriage, caring for a baby, a divorce, a new marriage, moving across the country, and a host of other experiences. Basically, whenever I was getting frustrated or taking things too seriously, I would stop and think about what things really meant. Usually, they weren’t as bad, or as serious as I thought, once I really THOUGHT about them. Sometimes, all I needed to do was put on a sparkly dress and laugh. That always helps. Thank you, Mr. Scott, wherever you are.