When I was moving last month, I came across a folder of old school stuff. There was my Official Poetic License certificate from second grade. There was my first grade story about a snowman that played running back and carried his team, the Snowy Snowmen, to the Super Bowl. And there was a graded test I took from 12th grade calculus. I’m actively trying not to be a hoarder these days, but I kept all three – the certificate and the story because you never know when you’re gonna need to whip those out; the test because my teacher, Mr. Martellini (or Marto as we affectionately called him), was a treasure.
Every day my senior year, I lugged my backpack (and my mathematically uninclined brain) to Marto’s class. And every day, I sat through class for 40 minutes then stayed put in my same seat for another 40 minutes during my free period to try to make sense of the all the scary numbers and quadratics . Math was never easy for me. I always had to work my butt off to scrape by. I got more Cs than As in high school math and avoided it altogether in college. With Marto, I was still lost. What I loved, though, and what kept me engaged was how he reminded me how lost I was. He was so endearing with his tough-love.
“Gibbons, you got the IQ of a Macadamia Nut! And the common sense of CHICKPEA!”
He’d half-smile, pretend to whack me in the head with a curled-up paper, emphatically call me a moron in Italian (Menagia!), then pat me on the back. Emotionally, he was a mellower, less jittery Kramer from Seinfeld: deeply invested in your wellbeing despite regular flashes of insanity. Physically, he was Kramer with the gangly limbs, wrinkled shirts, untied shoes, and floppy, pseudo-curly hair. He bopped into class singing Eric Clapton while replacing the lyrics with how bad his dog smelled. He was a caricature of himself: a former Italian professional basketball player who retired from hoops to go back to school—only after walking across Afghanistan and becoming a cab driver in Boston.
He saw how much I was struggling with math and looked out for me.
“How about this? You walk Gus every morning and come in for extra help, and we’ll keep this boat afloat. Boat AFLOAT—that rhymed, Gib-bones. Gib-BONES.”
I picked up his dog’s poop. He made sure I passed. Even-steven.
When I found my old test last month, I felt a nice distance from my anxious, 17-year-old math self. I also felt a warm fondness for a heck of a teacher. I looked through the test and found Marto’s comments:
Gibbons, this is not good. I’ve never seen anyone approach an algorithm like this in all my years.
This is something else. You’re a simpleton, a great simpleton but still a simpleton. I learn something new every day.
I did, too — not necessarily math-related but something. I learned that 14-year-old labs are great walking pals. And I learned that there’s a quiet brilliance in just showing up every day.
The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do. –John Holt