This is a story about a story — about a high school math project and a re-connection with a former teacher. Hope you like it!
A Fond Memory
Back in my freshman year of high school, we had a school project to create a children’s book about math. We wrote a story called “The Grinch Who Stole Math.” We had fun writing it. And even had more fun when our teacher picked it as the favorite story of the class — over rival story, “Irrational Land.”
I’ve always thought fondly about that project. It made me smile to think back to it.
More than twenty years later, I thought to myself: “I wonder if my 9th grade teacher still has a copy of that story? I’d love to read it to my kids.” So I tracked down her contact information and reached out to her…
Greetings! It’s DeForest McDuff. You may remember me from your classes at River Hill from 1996-2000. I found this email address through online searching – hopefully you still monitor it…!
I was writing to see if you held onto a copy of our story from high school: “How the Grinch Stole Math.” Is there any chance you still have it somewhere? If so, would you be able to scan and send it my way? I had such great memories of it, and I recall that you kept it to show to later classes as an example of great work (indeed it was!). 🙂
Update on me: After high school I went to University of Maryland. Majored in Math + Economics. Went to Princeton and earned my PhD in Economics. I’ve been working economic consulting ever since. I live in Boston with my wife, Susan, and our four kids. See below for a picture.
Hope you are well and that this messages finds you!
I didn’t really expect a response, but here’s what she wrote back:
It was delightful to get your note and to hear about what you are up to these days! Congratulations on all of your accomplishments. I can see that your life is busy and full of wonderful things—especially your beautiful family!!
I do have a copy of your project and I am happy to send it to you. If you want the original, I would be happy for you to have it. Your project is the only one that I know of that I still have. After retiring in 2006, I have slowly gotten rid of many old files, but that project had been included in my nomination packet for The Washington Post Outstanding Teacher Award in 2002. At one point I could have pulled out 50 of those projects, but not any more.
I still tutor a few students for math and SAT Prep, but these days I spend a great deal of my time painting.
Take very good care.
With fond memories and best wishes,
I couldn’t believe it! She kept the original copy of our children’s story from math class for more than 20 years! How nice of her to do so and to offer to send it to me! A few days later the book showed up in my mailbox:
It was funny to me to see all of those co-authors, since I recall writing the entire text myself, with Andy Chen doing the illustrations. Such is the norm for group projects in high school, I suppose. Talk about free riding! 🙂
The King’s Chessboard
We exchanged a few messages back and forth, sharing stories from our class about who was doing what and where people were going with their lives. It was wonderful to re-connect and share a bit of insight about life from each other’s perspectives.
Amazingly, she also sent me another children’s book for my kids, The King’s Chessboard:
“I am going to send you another book that you may or may not remember, The King’s Chessboard, by David Birch. This is the story that I read to you (while you sat in a circle on the floor and ate milk and cookies) as a model for your story project. Your children are a bit too young for it at this point, but I am sure that you will know when they are ready.”
The story is about a king who receives a favor from a wise man and insists in giving the wise man a reward. The wise man proposes this: a single grain of rice on day 1, two grains of rice on day 2, four grains of rice on day 3, eight grains of rice on day 4, and so on, doubling the amount for each of the 64 squares on the chessboard. The king laughs and agrees, not realizing how big 2^64 will ultimately become…! It’s an amusing story about the power of exponential growth.
I told my teacher about a doubling game I like to play with my kids, related to the same concept.
“I love that story, and it’s a fun match for my son — he and I often have challenges to name the powers of 2 — to see how high we can get before we lose our memory (“1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32…”). Lately, I’ve been getting up to 2^20 (1,048,576) before my brain can’t handle any further. My son keeps trying to memorize the next one rather than do the math. It’s a fun game for us and he’ll get a kick out of the book.”
Your Homework Assignment
Reaching out to my former teacher was an important reminder of just how much impact we can make on people. I still remember her teaching and her impact on me, and she remembers my time in her class, however fleeting, in the context of all the students she had over the years. It’s neat to think about how our life paths are built on the sum of these interactions over time.
Here’s a homework assignment: Consider looking up a former teacher (or a former coach) that had an impact on you. Tell them about your memories of their class. Tell them where you’ve ended up in life. They’ll be delighted to hear from you, and may share a memory or two of their own. Re-connecting after decades can bring back memories that you’ll continue to treasure for the rest of your life.
The Grinch Who Stole Math (1997)
So, without further ado, here is “The Grinch Who Stole Math,” written and illustrated more than 20 years ago…