By Kathleen Schaefer
My sixth grade teacher leaned over the desk in a humorously threatening manner.
“Really? You think you know everything? What is the origin of the word hypotenuse, then?”
Luckily, I had my response ready. “Greek: hypo meaning under and teinein meaning stretched.”
My quick answer made the class erupt with laughter, and I simply let the whispering students believe that, indeed, I did know absolutely everything. But truthfully, Mr. Cohen had a habit of repeating the random questions he flung at me on a regular basis. Sometimes sounding smart was simply a matter of putting aside two minutes to research an answer.
My school was too small to maintain any sort of accelerated programs for students; instead, I had spent the next few years studying from various math workbooks on my own. At the beginning of sixth grade, my teacher simply handed me a textbook and sent us to the back of the room during his lectures.
Before, while working independently, I quietly and diligently raced through the workbooks, challenging myself to reason out solutions as quickly as possible without aid. But now, working with my new partner-in-crime, my task changed drastically. The challenge of the textbook problems became a secondary thought as we trained ourselves to keep one eye on the class’s lesson, waiting for Mr. Cohen to stumble.
“Anisa, isn’t that the wrong inequality sign?”
She would study the blackboard for a moment before confirming my suspicions, and our hands would shoot into the air, waiting for our teacher’s amused, but slightly irked nod in our direction. Then we pointed out his mistakes, all in the name of education, of course .
This habit of ours did not last long before, following another correction, he simply looked at us and said, “Alright girls, it’s war.”
War ended any hopes of Mr. Cohen evading our incessant corrections. My accomplice and I expanded beyond the realm of mathematics and stayed alert for any possible missteps.
War left no room for mistakes or weaknesses. I gathered a few random, useless facts that would allow me to respond to his questions with answers, rather than eye rolls.
I accepted the challenge of much-despised blitz math games which, I had often purposely failed as a method of protest. War meant I needed to be perfect, or at least seem like I was.
Then war had rules. My partner and I abandoned our math textbook in favor of composing long, complex problems designed to challenge our teacher. Every two weeks, we exchanged math problems with Mr. Cohen and tried to solve his creation without any outside help.
We typically succeeded.
I rarely accept presented information as absolute truth. I do not need anyone with the obnoxious habit of constantly pointing out inaccuracies to know that they exist everywhere. Rather, I attempt to appreciate any provided knowledge for its worth, before making my own decisions as to what to believe.
As for mistakes, I find that my teacher’s ability to use his missteps to fuel my own academic drive probably means more than any faultless lectures.
And he did end up buying us pizza in acknowledgement of our victory, so the war was over. We had won.