Out of pure curiosity and with a dim hope of connecting with her, I recently googled my 7th grade mathematics teacher, Mrs. Josephine Both. I was saddened, though not too surprised, to discover that she had passed away, peacefully, a few years ago at the age of 88. According to the obituary, she had taught mathematics for 38 years prior to retiring from the West Orange public school system in 1991.
I was 12 years old when I entered junior high, a new school, while in the process of leaving childhood and, for me, slowly entering into adolescence. I now met new faces insofar as the kids from junior high (today often referred to as the intermediate grades) came from three or four different elementary schools. Rather than staying put in one classroom, our homeroom would go from class to class with the periods lasting about 50 minutes, and with each instructor teaching a different subject. When I walked into my math class with my peers, we were greeted by a beautiful blonde lady who had written her name on the blackboard. As I was usually the shortest in the class, I would often seat myself toward the front of each classroom. Upon seeing my new teacher, I remember a gushing nervousness along with an involuntary excitement taking over my body. I had little control over any of it.
Although I had barely entered pubescence, nevertheless, I could still sense a tingling sensation going through my body each time I went into Mrs. Both’s classroom. Although I neither loved nor detested mathematics, looking at Mrs. Both made it easier for me to study and do the work-related assignments she would give us. But let me make it clear that in addition to her beauty, she was an excellent teacher. If my memory serves me right, her lessons were all well planned, and she was organized to a T. She had the deft ability to elucidate the calculation of different word problems that employed numbers in various ways.
By sitting in the front of the classroom, I was extremely visible and, from time to time, I had the tendency to talk with my classmates. One day I was talking to Marilyn Charles, the girl sitting next to me, and before I could end chatting with her, Mrs. Both came over and told me I had to write fifty times the following: I will not talk during math class. Although I wasn’t the first to receive such treatment in our class, it was so sudden and unexpected that I clearly remember a feeling of embarrassment. No doubt, it felt lousy being criticized by my favorite teacher. I recall blushing in shame–when I was caught in the act of talking–but from that time on being especially careful not to talk while math class was in session. With a tired hand and an apologetic tone, I handed the fifty-line repetition in to Mrs. Both the next day; she thanked me saying she hoped I had learned a lesson. Needless to say, the punishment did not alter my feelings toward her.
I tended to start the year off slowly, persevere, catch up and then often exceed my classmates in performance. As the year progressed, my grades improved, and I was doing, especially well, in mathematics. Now the end of the year had come, all the grades were in, and Mrs. Both had given us a fun assignment in which we had to work out a group of word problems and compete as teams in our last class. I am quite sure much of my motivation in completing this task had as much to do with my feelings toward Mrs. Both as it did my interest in solving the problems. When I am determined to do something, I find myself able to handle tasks that I ordinarily might not venture to achieve. And so, I diligently solved all the word problems and came to class the next day pretty resolved that I had all the correct answers.
It was the last day of math class with my farewell, if it may be said, to Mrs. Both. Because it had no bearing on our grades, it was apparent that very few of my classmates had taken the time to solve the majority of the word problems. When Mrs. Both read each problem, I, confidently, would raise my hand and give the right answer until both teams were calling my name to score a point. Finally, Mrs. Both said: “Did anyone do any of the problems except Buzzy (my childhood nickname)?” Upon saying that, she looked at me with the most beautiful smile that I have kept with me to this day. I believe my performance in that class the last day of school might very well have represented a peak academic experience in my K through 12th grade education. The irony of it was that it hardly mattered to me that I did not receive a grade for it.
In the summer, I was at camp and wrote Mrs. Both a letter as she had given me her personal address. Because my handwriting was never particularly neat, I made sure to print and, accordingly, it was a labor of love. When she responded, I remember I was thrilled. She said something to the effect that she enjoyed teaching at my school but was going to transfer to another school that offered her better job opportunities. For a moment I remember being a little sad but underneath it all I realized, after all, that she was not only my teacher but the teacher of many other children. Aside from that understanding, I was now beginning to gain an interest in girls my age. But my memory of her remains, and I was happy to read in Mrs. Both’s obituary that she had had a full life of contentment.