Thursday, July 23, 2009


At my Jewish day school, our principal was British and preferred being called "headmaster". Occasionally, he'd visit our 8th grade classroom during the half of the day reserved for secular studies. He would knock and politely ask the teacher if he might interrupt for a moment. Then, with that dignified but musical accent, he’d read us a bit of literature – poetry, perhaps, or part of a play. Or he’d lead us on a journey into the unknown by presenting us with an algebraic problem or two.

The 15 of us in the class had moved as a group through the grades, gaining or losing one or two along the way. So I probably could have predicted who’d surreptitiously groan at this interruption (usually a boy).

I, on the other hand, adored every moment of every visit. Later, when I enjoyed all of high school algebra and geometry, chances are there was a connection. Even today, a long time later, I keep on my book shelf a plane geometry review book I once came across at a yard sale. Some day, I hope to find the time to relearn all those theorems. They can take me from a problem’s skimpy offering of givens to the seemingly impossible proof, if I just discover the necessary connecting steps and take them.

At college, I majored in English and spent a lot of my extracurricular time with the university's theatre groups. Math courses were not among my requirements. Besides, without really thinking about it, I had begun to divide the world in certain ways. Scientists and mathematicians were other people. I was in the arts.

But what makes something an art?

I don’t know if Mr. Plotnick, our headmaster, pondered such matters when, before a visit, he'd contemplate what to bring to our classroom that day. Literature? Math? Did it matter? Did he realize on a conscious level what he was teaching us? A Shakespeare play and a well-solved math challenge are more the same than different. They are both poetry.


  1. As a former math teacher I really appreciate your comments. You write so beautifully about a play and a math puzzel both having a poetic quality. And about a geometric theorem that models how to solve a daily difficulty of every day life, step by step. The list goes on to add the notes in music and the angles of the shots when playing pool. Thank you for this reminder of how everything is connected and builds on each other.... Rosalyn

  2. It does seem rather arbitrary to divide the education into the arts and math/science. This is a great point, and just one of many considerations you've brought up here. It's wonderful how you can set our thoughts spinning in just a few well-written paragraphs!

  3. Yes, your way with words is magic, Marji. I also believe that we tend to compartmentalize learning too much. I teach Developmental Writing to college students (those who cannot qualify for English 101), and I use a linguistic formula called "Sector Analysis" to teach my students how to solve sentences for "x".

    Much love,

  4. Wasn't it Einstein who once said that imagination is more important than knowledge - or something to that effect? And isn't creativity an indispensible ingredient to the task of all problem solving, whether the task involves finding mechanical, political or artistic solutions, or various combinations thereof?

    Thank-you, Marji,for providing me with the inspiration to revisit my "wonder years" and remember some very fine teachers who taught their subjects in ways that were truly a work of art. - Erika