"My name is Mrs. S., and I am a witch." That was my introduction to my eleventh grade math teacher. She stood at the front of the classroom, eyeing all the students sternly, and then proceeded to teach. At the end of our first class, she assigned homework. At the beginning of our second class, she gave us a surprise quiz. I was terrified of her.
But as the year progressed, I began to see past the "witch" exterior she had built up and got to know an amazing individual who sincerely cares about each of her students and does everything in her power to help them succeed. I grew close to her by calling her with my math questions and talking to her about unrelated subjects; I grew even closer by ending off each week with a hug from her. She would say, "Tzipora, if I was teaching in a public school, they would fire me for hugging a student!" but I wouldn't miss my Friday hug for anything. I came to think of her as my grandmother; in fact, she reminds me of my biological grandmother: tall, stately, still beautiful despite her age, stern but loving, demanding but also forgiving. Math became the highlight of my week and my favorite subject while Mrs. S. became my favorite teacher and mentor. And when I learned about her life story, she became my biggest inspiration to try hard and succeed.
Mrs. S. was born in Romania just after the beginning of the Second World War. After graduating high school, she went on to get her Masters degree at the University of Romania as a chemical analyst. At the age of 24, she was ready to begin working in her field as a chemical analyst, but her father didn't allow her to pursue it because the only job available was too far from home. Instead, she got a job teaching high school chemistry and French.
Soon afterwards, she got married and moved to Israel with her husband. Once again, she couldn't find a job in her field, because Israel didn't want female chemists at the time. What she did find was a job at an all-boys' technical high school in Haifa, teaching mathematics and physics. She only had two problems with this: she didn't speak any Hebrew, and she wasn't very well educated in math. She had dropped out of high school mathematics because of the animosity directed towards her by her anti-Semitic math teacher. Instead of math, she had taken Latin. In order to be accepted to university, she had taken a summer mathematics course and passed it - barely. As well, she had learned some math while getting her degree in chemistry. However, now she would have to teach the subject . . . and in a foreign language!
But she managed, because she had to manage. She wrote out all of her classes in Hebrew, memorized them, and taught that way. "If someone would interrupt me to ask a question," she told me, "I would have to restart from the beginning of my sentence because that's the way I had the lessons memorized." She recited her lessons that first year in algebra, trigonometry, physics, and eventually chemistry, while learning Hebrew and math from her students. "They were brilliant boys," she said, "and they taught me the math!" She taught in Israel for two and a half years before coming to Canada.
Once she reached Canada, she was faced with a similar dilemma as before: although she now had a math education, she didn't speak the language. So, when she got a job at Beth Jacob High School teaching mathematics, physics, chemistry, and science to all grades, she again wrote out her classes and memorized them. And it wasn't easy. "I cried every night," she confessed to me. "I watched 'Bugs Bunny' and didn't understand a word and I cried because I couldn't even understand 'Bugs Bunny!'" But she worked hard, and she learned. And 42 years later, she's still teaching in the same high school and her English is better than that of most of her students.
As I listened to Mrs. S. in our interview, I was astounded by her accomplishments. Besides her education at the University of Romania, she also studied in Israel to round out her knowledge in mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Upon coming to Canada, she took courses from the Ontario College of Education to get a teaching degree. She still takes math courses every summer to update her knowledge. "My mind is mathematically inclined; I love the subject," she said. In fact, anything that uses the mind interests her. Referring to the brain, she used to tell us students, "If you don't use it, you lose it." In her spare time, she does crossword puzzles or "The Moscow Puzzles." She gave me a copy of "The Moscow Puzzles" as a gift and told me not to look at the answers in the back of the book. Who needs the back of the book anyway? I'll just call her if I can't work them out on my own.
When I asked Mrs. S. what advice she has to give to students interested in a career in mathematics, she told me the following. "If a student is gifted in this area, he or she should definitely pursue a career in the field. It is a very rewarding job and I love it." But she loves more than her job; she loves her students and does her best to give them what they need to succeed in life. Eleventh grade mathematics taught me so much more than just trigonometry. It taught me that I can succeed, because someone believes in me; I can climb high, because someone showed me how to pick myself up if I fall; I can do whatever I set my mind to, because someone told me that I can. And that someone is Mrs. S.
About the student:
* Name changed at request of interviewee.