Monday, March 31, 2014

Mrs. Perkins, Geometry, and Running Hard to the Finish

Through some fluke, I was put in the “high” group in math and was one of the first in eighth grade to take Algebra I in my school. We were the guinea pigs for what I know is common today, and it turned out to be a disaster for me. Truth be told, I probably had a learning issue with Algebra. I always tested well on achievement tests, but when it came down to it, I just couldn’t see it. Later in tenth grade, we’d find out how true this was when sainted Mrs. Hay had to endure my presence in her Algebra II class. However, that’s a story for another day. The only good thing that came out of eighth grade Algebra was it allowed me to take geometry in the ninth grade.

I’m visual and geometry was made for me. I never could figure out how anyone came up with the answers to those algebraic equations, but I could see geometry. My teacher was an elderly woman named Mrs. Perkins who wore shirtwaist dresses and twirled her grey hair into a bun.

Mrs. Perkins had also taught my mother. I even found a picture of mom about the age she had Mrs. Perkins, here photographed in front of the school we both attended. Eighth grade was part of the high school in those days.


Mrs. Perkins, an educator for at least forty years and probably longer, had to be at least in her seventies. She was mostly retired except for teaching a couple of geometry classes every day.

I loved her.

I could understand everything she said. I don’t know whether that was because geometry was really that much easier for me or because Mrs. Perkins made it that much easier. While the eyes of other students glassed over as she went on and on about angles, volume, and circumference, I was fascinated. When we wrangled with the formula for the area of the right circular cylinder, all those pi's enthralled me.

In addition, I loved theorems, maybe because they involved words rather than numbers. In any event, Mrs. Perkins and I were a great match.

Mrs. Perkins was prone to tell stories, mostly about days past, about her childhood, about living through the depression or World War II.

She shared about how firmly entrenched she was in her habits. One of them was her nighttime snack— milk toast. I’d never had milk toast, but the way she talked about it made it sound so consoling. I thought I might try it. Decades have rolled by though, and I still haven’t.

Mrs. Perkins was a woman who was prompt and finished what she started. We could always count on her to have our homework or test papers graded and handed back the next day—no waiting to find out for better or worse what our grades would be.

When the year concluded, our final exam was her last class of the year, and when she took the test papers home that afternoon, we knew she’d grade them immediately as always.

And she did. But minutes after she finished, she did something that she’d never done before.

She died.

We were the last class she ever taught, and when we received our test papers back, we knew ours were the last ones she’d graded. I made a very good grade in geometry that year and saved that final exam for years. It reminded me of a beloved teacher who put her last mark on her last paper, then stepped over into the Promised Land.

When I think of people who’ve greatly influenced me, I think of Mrs. Perkins—her love of story, her thoroughness, and her loving care. I remember how she finished her life well.

Someone else who finished well wrote, “I’ve run hard right to the finish, believed all the way. All that’s left now is the shouting—God’s applause!” (2 Timothy 4:7).

If anyone ever ran hard to the finish, it was Mrs. Perkins. We knew she was a woman of Christian faith, because in those days in public education, teachers could share such things. I imagine there was a good deal of applause when Mrs. Perkins arrived on heavenly shores.

I look forward to seeing her again, but right now, I’m running hard my own race. Mrs. Perkins’ life was not an easy one. Maybe that’s why she shared the difficulties of the depression and the war, so her students would understand that sometimes you have to persevere beyond what you might have previously thought impossible.

Mrs. Perkins gave me more than an appreciation of Geometry. Because of the fine teacher that she was, she understood her role was much larger. She gave me a vision for life.

Like her, I am aiming to finish well.

Meanwhile, anybody need to know the formula for the area of a trapezoid?

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