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We are not numb3rs.

For one hour each day in fifth grade I answered to the name of Roy.

Miss Veronica Piper [1895–1967] taught mathematics at John Walsh Elementary School in Summit, Illinois, one of three schools where I was bussed long before bussing became a dirty word. Miss Piper was also just one of the many unmarried teachers in the pubilc school system of the 50s and 60s. A gaunt woman who might have been sculpted by Alberto Giacometti, Miss Piper had taught my father, so for an hour each day I became Roy Ramsey her pupil of nearly thirty years previous. I’ve wanted for some time to weave her into the Agincourt story, since Miss Piper had played a pivotal role in my own education. Look for her—or someone very like her or someone even you might have known—in one of Howard’s brief series “Ghosts of Christmas Past.”

It was eighth grade before I encountered a male teacher and prior to that time only a handful of the women had been married. The vast majority were what I call “secular nuns”—women forced to choose between marriage or career. They might have become teachers or nurses or secretaries or salesgirls—or wives and mothers; the latter precluded and of the former. Those of Veronica’s generation strode in long black dresses and the sensible shoes worn by nuns. Giacometti sketched her a hundred times without setting foot in America.

Giacometti02

Mathematics was so much more than a “subject” in Miss Piper’s classroom; it was a world view. Under her tutelage, I came to know the discipline of numbers; their impartial, unprejudiced behaviour, so unlike the teenager I might have become.

Formulae (pardon the proper Latin plural) flowed from the tip of her chalk. Solutions solicited; hands raised; names called—mine, of course, was Roy—and answers acknowledged, without shame and embarrassment, which were unwelcome in her classroom. One can nurture beyond the bounds of motherhood. Now, these forty-five years later, I credit Miss Piper with anything approximating mental discipline in my problem-solving repertoire. 

We may not be numbers. Patrick McGoohan’s character in “The Prisoner” passionately resisted being labeled as “Number Three.” But there are moments when I envy the order of numbers; the way they behave. Numbers, shapes, patterns of all sorts are the stuff of my life. Seeing them—everywhere—has been one of my greatest gifts. Yes, those abilities were in place long before I sat in her classroom, but one of the greatest teachers in my experience helped bring them to the fore.

Depressives like me tend toward early awakening; fitfull sleep in bouts of an hour or so, interrupted with SuDoKu, at least a half dozen each night. And the successful completion of any, especially those labeled “fiendish,” brings Veronica Piper to mind. I can only hope the Great Clockmaker of the Universe has put her to keeping it in good working order.


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