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Mr. Geller

Susan Notes:

The New York Times Sunday Magazine is running an end-of-year feature, remembering some people who passed. No, not movie stars or politicos.

Ira Glass, Julie Snyder and Lisa Pollak, producers of WBEZ Chicago’s public-radio program "This American Life," were guest editors of this section of the magazine.
Here's Ira Glass introducing it.

When The Times Magazine's editors invited us to be part of the annual "Lives They Lived" issue, they told us two things: 1) They wanted us to be bold and shake things up, and 2) Times readers love the issue just the way it is.

Nice. We decided to try something that's not so different from what we do each week on the radio. For each person, rather than the soup-to-nuts sweep of a typical obituary, we chose only one story from his or her life. An excerpt. As much as possible, we tried to get these stories in their own words, or in the words of people close to them. Our hope was that the immediacy and intimacy of this approach would bring us close to these people, and help us hear their voices, get a feeling for who they were.

Many of the people we've chosen have done nothing that would normally get them into a magazine. If the premise of this issue is to tell stories about who has died this year, well, everyone dies. It's the most democratic experience of all, the one that, unhappily, we'll all take part in, sooner or later.

And of the hundreds of stories we considered, we were surprised to find that many of the ones we liked the most are from people talking directly about facing death, either their own or someone else's. These turn out to be very revealing stories. Not maudlin or despairing, just cleareyed, and occasionally hopeful. This is, over all, a hopeful collection of people.

NOTE: Richard Geller's passing was almost noted in the 'regular' New York Times. This note appeared under school announcements at SchoolBook blog run by the paper: "And, finally, at 4 p.m. Stuyvesant High School will hold a service to honor a beloved math teacher who died last month, Richard Geller. The service will be held at the school’s Murray Kahn Theater."

And finally???

Redeeming itself, SchoolBook posted a video of Mr. Geller's graduation speech

I mention all this to note that 43-year renown math teacher Richard Geller did not rate an obituary in the New York times. Such is reserved bankers, politicos, and sports stars.

Thank you, Ira Glass.

Mr. Geller
Richard Geller, b. 1946

When Richard Geller died, students put his catch phrase, "Math is #1," all over Stuyvesant High School, in New York City, where he had taught. It was taped onto lockers. It was drawn on a couple of desks. It was handwritten on a T-shirt. In the classroom, Geller was passionate and intense and demanding. One student remembered her math grade was the lowest one on her report card, "but it was a Geller grade, and it was the one I was most proud of." Geller could have retired a decade before he died, but he didn't want to. He was a math teacher through and through.

This is an edited and condensed version of a speech Geller delivered at Stuyvesant's graduation in June 2011. He died four months later.

I would like to thank the graduating class for having chosen me as your faculty speaker.

I wondered: Why me? I have been teaching math at Stuyvesant for 29 years and was never chosen before. By the way, 29 is a prime number. There are exactly two factors for 29: 1 and 29.

Maybe I was chosen for the approximately 5 basketballs that I confiscated from students during your four years at Stuyvesant. Or the 17 Frisbees I took away. Or the 113 decks of playing cards. Or the 257 cellphones I took away and brought to Miss Damesek's office. In case you haven't figured it out, all those numbers are prime numbers.

No, I don't think so. I think that you heard three months ago that I have metastasized melanoma cancer in my lungs and that you wanted to honor me for my passion for teaching math. Thank you for honoring me.

Even through all my problems, the best part of my day is teaching math. I have been teaching math for 43 years -- another prime number -- and still love it. I got lucky. I found a career that I really love.

I have been to many junior-high-school and high-school graduations as a teacher. However, the most important graduations for me were my children's graduations. Yes, I am a parent of a son and a daughter. Teachers do it, too, you know.

Only when I attended my own children's graduations did I realize how special parents find graduation. So give your parents a break today. Thank them for everything they have done for you. Let them take lots of pictures. Spend time with them. Let them enjoy it. In fact, please stand up, turn around, face your parents.

I have some homework for you.

Assignment No. 1: Volunteer. Tutor for free. Volunteer to help a political candidate. Help your parents. Make dinner, baby-sit, say thank you. Give up your subway seat to someone who is elderly or disabled. Think of others.

Assignment No. 2: Find a career that you enjoy as much as I enjoy teaching math. You will be much happier with your life if you enjoy your job. And if your parents don't like what you choose, that is their problem, not yours. When they see you happy in your life and career, they will be happy for you, too.

Assignment No. 3: Is 2011 a prime number?

I have loved being part of your four years of Stuyvesant. I have enjoyed watching you grow -- physically, mentally and mathematically. I leave you with the following words:

Math is #1.

At 2 a.m. on the day he died, Richard Geller woke from a deep sleep and opened his eyes and began to speak. His son, Jason, was spending the night in the hospital and tried to make out what his father was saying. These would turn out to be the last words Richard Geller ever spoke, and Jason says it was hard to understand him. "Then I realized he was saying: 'Take one and pass it down, take one and pass it down. Are there any questions?'"

— RIchard Geller and Ira Glass
New York Times Magazine



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