When I was a child, I was very unpopular with my peers. I didn’t fully know why that was (and I’m not at all sure I feel like trying to enumerate all of my childhood character flaws here), but there were at least a couple of factors that I figured had something to do with it. My last name was easy to make fun of. Gross-burger, gross-out, all manner of silly things like that. My favorite take on my name–though I certainly didn’t admit it at the time–was when some kid transposed vowel sounds to make Steve Grossberg into Stove Grease-berg. Pretty clever, darn him! I love that kind of wordplay (a trait I picked up from my dad), but less so when it’s targeted at me with something less than affection.
The other issue was that I didn’t get over wetting my pants until fifth grade. The worst episode happened in my first grade class, with a huge puddle on the floor and nowhere to hide. I was mortified. And my classmates were diligent in keeping that topic from ever quite drying up (charming self-deprecating humor there, right?) over the years. Even in junior high some of the kids who had gone to my elementary school tried to let the kids from other schools know that I used to wet my pants in school. Thankfully, that didn’t hold much traction, either because we were all a little older or because I had overcome that problem so my new classmates never witnessed it for themselves. Regardless of the reason, I started to have actual friends in junior high, though it would be a couple of years before I had a real through-thick-and-thin kind of friend.
Okay, flash back to elementary school. Who did see good things in me? Who recognized that I was special, creative, interesting? My teachers, of course. (With the notable exception of my second grade teacher; you can’t win ’em all.) For a long stretch of my youth the only people outside of my family who gave me positive strokes were my teachers, and I developed the idea somewhere along the line that I wanted to be a teacher myself one day so that I could be that one important person for kids like me.
You’d think that story would end up with me teaching at an elementary school, but you’ve probably already realized that it doesn’t. As I grew older I continued to have good relationships with many of my teachers. (Again, not all of them. My mother once told me that she was always nervous before parent-teacher conferences, worrying about whether my teacher loved me or hated me. Those were the only two options. I guess I made sure that they felt strongly about me, one way or the other. No room for ambivalence.) As I started developing friendships with my peers, my teachers didn’t need to be ports in the storm for me anymore, and I enjoyed the more mature, intellectual relationships I could have with them as I grew older. By high school I had teachers (Mr. Bissell, Ms. Janowski, Ms. Baldauf, Mr. Dunaway, Ms. Good, Mr. Harding, and even more) who blew my mind, in different ways, and I decided that those were the kind of relationships I wanted to spend my career building.
I did consider two other careers with at least some seriocity*: I could be an author or a lead singer in a band. To a small extent I tried both of these. I’ve never written anything longer than ten pages double-spaced, even in college, so I don’t think I’m capable of being an author. I have been fortunate to have had a few brief moments of lead-singing, including one day in high school when my friend Todd (on the bass) and I convinced another classmate who knew how to play guitar really well to join us at Todd’s house, learning to play a song I wrote. We only got about halfway through the song (“A Perfect Picture”) before we ran out of time, and I sure wish we’d recorded even that because the guitar player never came back, realizing that I at least was not in his league. (He went on to play guitar on one of Janet Jackson’s tours, we heard.)
So neither of those panned out and I stuck with my original plan of going into teaching. The question, once I decided on high school, was which subject to teach. Math (almost) always came easily for me, so when I told people I wanted to be a teacher, they assumed I would teach math. But the thing was, I didn’t really like math back then, so I always said “no, thanks”. Unfortunately I didn’t have an alternative that excited me. Then came senior year and Mr. Harding’s Physics class. Holy cow! Talk about learning how the world worked. This stuff was awesome! Why does a sharp knife cut better than a dull knife? Because it’s, you know, more pointy, and pointy things well, you know, they can cut you and… No! It’s because with a sharpened blade you’re spreading your force out over a smaller surface area, so you get greater pressure. How cool is that? Answer: Very cool! So I decided to become a Physics teacher.
I got my bachelor’s degree in Physics and went on to get credentialed to teach Physical Science in CA. I got a number of interviews, even made it to the final four for one job and the final two at another job before finally receiving an actual job offer. Ironically, a fellow rookie teacher had had to cajole me into applying for this particular job. I didn’t really want to try for it because the job was half science and half math. (Something you might not be able to get away with these days, without being credentialed in Math as well.) It was also at a middle school, which wasn’t what I was shooting for either.
I ended up fitting in well at this small 6-12 school, and after a couple of years I got to teach one or two high school classes each year (though never Physics, as it happened). It was a lot of fun to work with the same students a couple of years later, to see them so much more in control of themselves. In a funny coincidence, there was even one student I taught math to for five years in a row. How many people can say that? Of course, if that no-longer-young man doesn’t know his math very well, I’m pretty much the only one to blame. Anyway, I stayed at the same school teaching science and math (and other things as well, occasionally) for ten years. By that time I realized that I liked teaching math better than teaching science. Or to put it differently, it became clear to me that I was a better math teacher than science teacher. I had earned my Math credential by examination along the way, and as my family was moving out of the state I decided it was time to set the science aside. And with the exception of one period of Intro to Computers for one year (which I didn’t find out about until the job interview), I’ve been strictly a math teacher ever since. I’m not even licensed to teach science anymore.
So that’s how and why I became a math teacher. Ask me some other time and maybe I’ll give you the long version of the story.
*As I mentioned earlier in the story, I enjoy wordplay. My students will tell you that I like to make up words now and then. I can’t take credit for this one, though. It is the title of a song from my high school days by The Chameleons, from the album Strange Times, which I should mention is quite possibly the greatest album ever made.