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Thursday, April 28, 2011
Sometimes someone does something courageous and good for you and you don't realize what it is they've done until much later. And sometimes you don't even get the chance to thank them; sometimes it's too late. Sometimes it's over 40 years before you realize it at all....
Herbert Richter was one of my favorite grade-school teachers. He taught 8th grade at St. John's Elementary School, and he was the principal. After grade school, he initiated me into the mysteries of the St. John's Church Organ. And in 1966, he was our math teacher. The New Math had been taught us since the 6th grade. We all knew what subsets were, how to describe a Venn diagram, and other pre-high-school algebra skills, variables, and the like. Statistical skills and talents were developed that made us feel very smart and superior to our parents, because the ostentatious terminology sounded very learned. The parents were just adders and memorizers, not real mathemetical geniuses like ourselves.
But one day, Mr. Richter passed out what he called "the Webster". It was an old blue "retired" arithmetic text, either authored by someone named Webster, or published by Merriam-Webster; I've forgotten which. The Websters could not be taken out of the classroom - they were never to be taken home. Thinking back now, I believe that Mr. Richter went out on a limb to teach us arithmetic from the old books, and he was counting on us to "keep a low profile" about what we were studying. In all probability, he was going counter to the school board and the "progressive" things the faculty learned at teachers' conventions. Mr. Richter was taking a career risk to teach us from these books. .
And what were the arcane teachings contained in the Webster, that three years of New Math did not teach us? Mysteries, witchcraft and voodoo in the numbers! Converting fractions to percentages using long division. Compound interest. Rates and ratios, weight and measurement conversions and tolerances. Discounts, accounting, multiplication by tables. And by learning these applied concepts, reviewing by relentless application of the basic add/subtract/multiply/divide skills that we had learned in the first five grades.
When we got to high school, the educators said about us that we were behind in basic algebraic skills. Still, we caught up, and when the final grades were added up, many of us from St. John's were close to the top of the class. And, we possessed some skills that could only have been obtained by having been in Mr. Richter's class.
Thanks for taking the chance on us, Mr. Richter!
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