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On keeping in touch

| Professor of Computer Science and Engineering
46 years later, Cytron (right) still considers Maxyne Cammack (left) to be his teacher — and friend. (Courtesy of Ron Cytron)

Make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend; judge all people with the scale weighted in their favor. — Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors)

I have known the above quote from Jewish writings since I was a teenager, but its meaning has become more clear to me only in recent years. As this semester draws to a close, most students will return in the spring, but some will graduate; still more will leave our campus after spring semester. So, I write about getting and keeping in touch, from the perspective of a student and then a teacher.

I recently attended my high school reunion, which gave me occasion to travel to Dallas, Texas, my hometown. I have made it a practice on most visits to reconnect with teachers I had at Hillcrest High School, the ones who had such an impact on the trajectory of my life. I graduated from Hillcrest High School in 1976, with a love of math that was mostly attributable to Maxyne Cammack, who was my math teacher in 10th and 11th grade. She hailed from the small town of Longview, some 100 miles east of Dallas, graduating from college with studies in chemistry and with no plans of becoming a teacher. She was not happy with lab work, so when she heard of an opening at a school, she began her long career of teaching math, first at lower-grade levels and eventually at my high school, where she taught for 28 years.

My classmates and I remember her for her fierce command of the classroom, for knowing her 23 times tables, and for being able to target the trash can with objects from anywhere in the room. She would be solving a problem on the board, which might culminate in 23×107, and she’d turn to us for the answer. When nobody had the product ready, she’d lament that we didn’t know our 23 times tables, and she would then write the answer immediately on the board.  Many years later, when I asked her how she did that, she told me the problems were the same every year, so after a while she remembered the answers.

Let’s return to the opening quote: “Make for yourself a teacher.” It turns out that sitting in a classroom with a person lecturing up front does not make that person your teacher. Only you can bring such a relationship into existence. You make that person your teacher when you are open to learning, willing to struggle with new material and new ways of thinking. The quote continues to say that you level-up the relationship by acquiring that teacher as your friend. I see from my visits to Maxyne Cammack the joy that such visits can bring to a teacher. She has indeed become my friend. At the end of our last visit, I said that her love of math was so great that it inspired me and many others to share in that love.

As a teacher, I appreciate that the highest honor my students have given me is staying in touch. Some visit me when they are in town, and I often see them when in their towns. It would be exhausting and impractical to do this for all teachers and students, but for the ones who become friends, it is a perpetual reminder of the learning we once shared, and I truly enjoy seeing the paths their lives take after graduation.

The final part of the quote has been the most puzzling for me, but here is what I think it means. As a teacher or a student, we should judge each with the scale weighted in the other one’s favor. I assume my students are here to learn and to grow in knowledge, confidence, and achievement. My students have been likewise gracious in assuming that I do what I can to teach them well.

As you think about how you might spend your holiday break, may I suggest that you get in touch with a teacher who made a difference in your life? I predict that such a visit will be unexpectedly rewarding for both you and your teacher.

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