Gratitude and Mrs. Seymour

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October 29, 2009

Gratitude and Mrs. Seymour

My freshman year in high school I, along with many of my friends, was placed in a beginning algebra course. It was billed as sort of an advanced placement but in reality it was just beginning algebra. It was at a time when math teachers were being trained in the “new math.” It was not really all that new as set theory had been around for a long time; it just wasn’t being taught in high school. From the reaction of the teachers you would have thought that math itself had somehow been transformed into a different language, like teaching English from a French textbook. I think it was abandoned after a while as one of those things that seemed a good idea at the time but wasn’t very practical. As one who took 23 hours of math in college, I never really understood why it was such a big deal anyway.

Our class was at the leading edge of the baby boomer population and thus we had some 400 or so new students which put a burden on the space and teaching resources of the high school. To address this sudden surge in enrollment a few retired teachers were put back into service and thus entered Mrs. Seymour. She was a short, round, plumpish lady with snow white hair. From my thirteen year old perspective she was also old, which probably meant late 50’s or early 60’s. She was in appearance like the southern lady Sunday school teachers, deacon’s wives, and aunts that hovered around my life. The thing that set Mrs. Seymour apart was that she had a passion for mathematics and, bless her heart, she was determined to instill algebra into our freshman souls. It was a challenge, starting with the assumption that freshmen have souls much less brains.

I am sure that Mrs. Seymour had not taught freshmen for awhile. My recollection is that she reminded us of that on occasion. Every class was for her I am sure like pouring water on stone and expecting to shape it into a sculpture. There were a few bright kids to be sure but most of the class seemed to struggle with the simplest of concepts.

During every class she would exhort us to “think.” She would often say “I wish I had a big lighted sign and I could push a button and it would light up and remind you to ‘THINK’.” It was a good image for us technology deprived freshmen. In the days before iPods and cell phones and Twitter, a lighted sign seemed pretty technologically advanced, especially with a button you could push to make it light up!

Most of us survived the class and moved on to trigonometry and geometry. Mrs. Seymour went back into retirement.

During my senior year my best friend came to me with an invitation involving Mrs. Seymour. He was president of the senior class and he had the idea to honor our freshman teacher so he had made (and this was truly amazing for 1967) a sign that would light up when you pushed a button and it said “THINK.” It was a technological marvel. I am sure he had help from his dad to build such a thing. His plan was to get as many of our classmates together as possible to go over to Mrs. Seymour’s house and present it to her.

I told him I was really busy with band and a girlfriend and senior stuff but he was after all my best friend so I couldn’t turn him down. When the day arrived he picked me up in his car after school and told me that unfortunately it looked like it would just be us. He had tried to get others interested but after all it had been four years and Mrs. Seymour was just there the one year and everyone was really busy. He said we’d just go over and spend a few minutes and give her the sign.

We were greeted at the door by Mrs. Seymour, looking a bit older than I remembered. She was dressed in her Sunday best, which was not all that unusual in those days as people often dressed nicely to receive visitors. She greeted us warmly though I was not sure she remembered me. Later I learned she did because she and my aunt were good friends. When I walked in I knew something did not seem right. The furniture in the living room looked sparse, but I thought perhaps it was like our house where no one ever actually went into the “living room” and thus the main living area was elsewhere. My friend presented the sign which delight her and we talked briefly about our days in her class. We were only two lowly freshmen at the time we took the class and only two of the hundreds, maybe thousands of students she taught.

We got ready to leave and she offered us a piece of cake. Neither of us was hungry and we tried to beg off but she was insistent. As she went into the kitchen I got a glimpse of the counter and there stacked neatly were several boxes full of delicious cakes. Only then did it sink in that preparations had been made for what should have been a large group of grateful students. The chairs pushed to the edges of the living room were to accommodate what should have been a larger crowd.

We had our cake and somewhat red-faced retreated from the house. I remember my friend being particularly bothered that people had been too busy to spend a few minutes in appreciation for this teacher who had invested so much in a bunch of ignorant freshmen. But hey, we were clueless 17 and 18 year olds. We went on with our busy lives and pretty much forgot about it. If Mrs. Seymour was disappointed, she never showed it. She and her husband were gracious and hospitable to my friend and me.

Several years later I saw Mrs. Seymour at the funeral of my aunt. She was by this time very frail and feeble and I barely recognized her. When she signed the book I went over and introduced myself and reminded her I had been in her freshman algebra class, that I had gone on to get a degree in engineering, and that I now worked at a college. She remembered me and she seemed pleased. I thought about that day during our senior year and I felt a bit of pain at the memory.

Having been in education for close to 40 years now I understand that students more often than not take their teachers for granted. It is not that they do not appreciate them. They just rarely take the time to express it. Occasionally I will run across someone who will ask me about a professor and tell me how much they meant to them. I usually encourage them to drop that professor a note. Once a student called my wife and offered to take her to lunch where she expressed gratitude to her for what she did for her as a student. But that is the exception, not the rule.

The reality is that people who teach learn not to expect gratitude. Their reward is in helping students become successful. Teachers love their subject and they love turning the light on in a student’s mind. More often than not their students go on to have productive lives and reach financial success far surpassing their teachers.

It would be nice if we could all take a few minutes and drop a note to a teacher who made a difference in our lives. Success rarely comes without the help and support of a teacher, friend, family member, or significant other person. I learned some algebra from Mrs. Seymour but from that day in her home I learned a far more important lesson and that is the power of gratitude.