Out in Left Field proudly presents the eighth in a series of letters by an aspiring math teacher formerly known as "John Dewey." All personal and place names have been changed to protect privacy.
The Barber and the Grandpa
One thing I imagined I would do as a student teacher would be to ask my students “Who can show this problem who’s boss?” whenever I wrote a problem on the board. Students would of course rise to the occasion. Nothing remotely like that ever happened. What did happen varied, but one event stands out. It occurred the Friday of the second week that my teacher was gone.
We had just covered squares, square roots and irrational numbers. I had shown with the aid of a spreadsheet how we can close in on the square root of 2 through successive approximations. I tried to get across that some numbers can be expressed as a ratio of two integers and others cannot. That idea remained an abstraction. My students could say that square root of 5 is irrational because it isn’t a perfect square, but that was it. (I myself didn’t really grasp this until high school.)
I ended the topic in my honors pre-algebra class saying “I know that the concept of rational and irrational numbers is abstract, but it’s a foundation of what we call the ‘real numbers’. If you study mathematics, you will see this concept many times.”
To which a chubby, jovial boy named Arturo replied: “I’m going to be a barber.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. This was at the end of the second week, as I say. A long week. On Monday of that week I announced the news to the class that their teacher’s father passed away over the weekend. I said she would be gone all week, but back next Monday. This was also parent teacher conference week. Our classes were shortened, so students only had half a day. The afternoon was devoted to the conferences. “I will be available to meet with your parents, and Mr. Ortega will be with me as well.” (Jaime Ortega was my sub while my teacher was gone.)
In all my classes, I circulated a sympathy card in which I had placed an accordion style insert of extra paper so everyone could sign. Marta in first period told me “That’s too bad her father died. I lost my grandpa last year; I was very sad.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
Rebecca, who sat next to Marta said “My grandpa died too. A few months ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. She nodded.
Given these conversations, I was surprised when the first person to talk to me at the parent teacher conference introduced himself with the words: “I am the grandpa.” He was a distinguished looking man, about my age. He was with his granddaughter, Gabby, a girl in the honors pre-algebra class. She had her two year old brother in her arms. “This is Louie,” she said.
I explained to the grandpa the situation with my teacher but that I could talk to him about his daughter. He spoke in Spanish from then on, and Jaime translated. He wanted to know how Gabby was doing. I looked up her class grade; she was doing fine. “Does she talk a lot?” he asked. I told him that the people she sat with were often noisy and she sometimes joined in. All in all, she was fine. In fact, she was a delight. He looked stern and said something to her in Spanish and she nodded. He thanked me, shook my hand, and she said “Goodbye, Mr. Finn!”
The conferences were set up in the cafeteria. We were stationed at long tables with name cards. Families, often with little ones in tow, roamed around the room as if it were a train station. Not many parents came by. Those who did were concerned about their child’s grades. I told them I would alert Mrs. Stevens when she returned, but also said that Mrs. Stevens and I were always available during lunch to tutor. And on Wednesdays after school, Mrs. Stevens also tutors—there are late buses. Very few students took advantage of this.
After I had talked with Gabby’s grandfather Jaime told me “A lot of times the grandparents or other relatives are taking care of the kids.”
“The parents are working in the fields?” I asked.
“Many of them, yes, but you have some kids who have a father in jail and sometimes the mother leaves. So they live with a relative or a guardian.”
By the end of the week, I had found out that Jaime’s parents worked in the fields, that he lived with them, that he had been a substitute for two years and there were few openings in the schools. He worked weekends at a pizzeria. In the summers, he helped his parents in the fields. And on Friday, it was his birthday.
“Happy birthday, Jaime!”
“Yes. I woke up today and looked in the mirror and said ‘today I’m thirty’.”
“Pretty young by my standards,” I said.
“Yeah, maybe. For Mexicans it is not. In Mexico, if you’re 30, you’re married with kids.”
The room was getting quieter; there were fewer families on that last day.
“I think people take a lot for granted here,” he said. “A lot of kids think here think because they’re not in Mexico it’s going to be easier. I tell the students, it’s about choices. You can work hard and try to do something with your life, or you can work in the fields all your life.”
“Or you can be a barber,” I said.
“Yes,” he said and smiled. “You can be a barber.” He looked at his watch. “Well, there’s not much going on, so I’m going to get something to eat.” I nodded.
“I guess I won’t see you anymore after this,” I said. “I enjoyed working with you.”
“Same here. I sub a lot here so you’ll see me.”
“I hope so,” I said and we shook hands.
I left shortly after. On the drive home I passed by many strawberry fields and wondered which ones Jaime had worked in, or my students’ parents. When there were no more strawberry fields to see, I started wondering what it would be like to have Tina back in the classroom once again.