I imagine that Dick Ireland, were he alive today, would be surprised to learn that a former student fondly and frequently recalls his old geometry and physics teacher nearly thirty years later. Once our mortarboards arced through an overcast spring sky and clattered onto the asphalt parking lot, I never returned. Nor did I bother to contact any of the instructors who were an integral part of my life all those years ago. Somehow the thought of keeping in touch with my alma mater and its faculty seemed like moving backward instead of forward. Yet in a minor irony that I never foresaw as a teenager, I eventually became a teacher myself.
Like most educators, I wonder about the lasting impact of my instruction and guidance. I hope that when I sign off on my last report card, I will have made a net positive difference in the lives of my students. But I’ll never really know. Students move on, just as I did. It took me years to truly appreciate what the best of my teachers had given me, just as I had to reach a certain level of maturity to understand how and why the worst of my teachers had shortchanged me. Good or bad, my lasting impressions of them have little to do with the content they labored to teach me.
Mr. Ireland was too eccentric to fade from any student’s memory, but I have remembered him more often since I have taken on the responsibilities of a teacher. In fact, there are three distinct triggers that summon his visage. Whenever I draw a circle on the board, I see Mr. Ireland with chalk in hand. If a student happens to gasp in a moment of sudden, dawning comprehension, I hear his gruff baritone. And on those occasions when I take notice of the clacking keys of my laptop as I rapidly transform thoughts into processed words, I remember some of the best advice that I was given in high school.
“Hunt!” he barked in his customary fashion of addressing students by their surnames. He was talking to my brother Brian, eight years my senior, some time well before I ever set foot in his classroom. “Is there a limit to how thin a bubble can be?” Brian thought it over a moment and answered affirmatively, whereupon Mr. Ireland expanded upon his correct response with a lengthy lecture about molecules and the building blocks of matter. My brother’s attention soon wandered to his lab table’s empty post hole, which was a receptacle for mounting Bunsen burners. With a small wad of paper at the ready, it also made an excellent mini-golf green.
Perhaps twenty minutes elapsed before Mr. Ireland finally reached the end of his educational monologue. With a lawyer’s flair for drama, he sought to wrap up his argument with a theatrical reiteration of his original premise. “So,” he asked almost rhetorically, “is there a limit to how thin a bubble can be…Hunt!”
Only my brother had not been listening. He was somewhere on the back nine, lining up another putt. The room fell silent at the mention of his name, and he looked up to find Mr. Ireland staring at him expectantly. Brian’s intuition told him that he was expected to answer a question, and weighing his chance for success at even odds, he took the plunge and replied, “No.”
“WHAT?!” roared a wide-eyed Mr. Ireland. Like the thinness of bubbles, his patience had a limit.
I had heard many Mr. Ireland stories before the day I became one of his pupils, tales of melodramatic moralizing, salty language, and legendary classes in which his passion for delivering life lessons eclipsed any curricular content. I was not disappointed. He was as unconventional and entertaining as promised. In addition, he knew his stuff, and he radiated a humble self-confidence in his academic knowledge. Even addled as I was with the self-absorbed mindset of the typical teenager, I perceived Mr. Ireland as someone to whom it was worth listening.
Circles were a prominent focus of our geometry lessons, and Mr. Ireland was forever inscribing them on the chalkboard. Although he had a large, wooden compass that was probably a product of the same ancient purchase order that procured his oversize protractor, he preferred the rapidity of drawing circles freehand. It was marvelous to watch. Over the years, his right arm had become its own compass, and the ovals he produced were stunningly regular, their beginnings and ends overlapping to form invisible seams. Sometimes after stepping back to admire his work, he would note that a circle is, by definition, the set of points equidistant from one point on a single plane. Then, with a smirk of satisfaction, he would boast that his freehand circles were as close as you could get to the real thing without using a compass.
Mr. Ireland spoke reverently about what he called the Aha Experience, that moment when you suddenly realize that you understand something that was only moments ago a mystery. He promoted it as a transformative experience, the very essence of education. To that end, he was always chiding us to stay on the alert. “Get your brain in gear!” he would thunder whenever he sensed that we were losing focus. It was a helpful admonition in geometry, which I grasped easily, but it wasn’t as applicable for physics. No matter how hard I tried to kick-start my grey matter, it never produced the level of success I was able to attain by allying myself with a smarter lab partner.
Perhaps because his duties were divided between the disciplines of geometry and physics, Mr. Ireland seemed unable to resist going off on a tangent. Our eyes snapped to eager attention at those times, because the longer we could encourage him to talk about something other than math or science, the less energy we would have to expend on learning. His war experiences were a reliable source of distraction, and they could be deeply entertaining, disturbing, funny, and sometimes all three at once. No one who heard his graphic depiction of the ravages of wartime syphilis (on his comrades, let me clarify) is likely to forget it. Though we welcomed his tales because we preferred them to the rigors of a challenging course, it was during one of those yarns that I absorbed advice for which I have been forever grateful.
At that time (the mid-1980’s), the more visionary members of our high school faculty observed the advent of the personal computer and foresaw the likelihood that our professional lives would be intertwined with the digital domain. Mr. Barnhart, our algebra and calculus instructor, even pioneered an extracurricular class teaching BASIC programming on old TRS-80 computers. In a nod to our changing world, the administration changed the name of the typing class to keyboarding. But aside from using some early typing education software, we were still buying correction tape and clacking away at IBM Selectrics. Keyboarding was a recommended yet elective class, and I wondered why I should trouble myself with it.
Mr. Ireland had an answer, though far from being visionary, it was rooted in his military service. Apparently there came a decisive moment when a secretary was needed for some strategic purpose. Among the rank and file, Mr. Ireland was the only one who happened to know how to type. He was immediately chosen for the position, a fortuitous circumstance that he claimed kept him out of combat. He urged all of us to sign up for the keyboarding class, because we could never know when that coveted skill might give us the leg up on our competition.
And here I am, my hands resting comfortably on the home keys as they obediently take my mental dictation. Thanks to Mr. Ireland, I can effortlessly record my thoughts almost as quickly as I think them. It’s a practical skill that has served me well over the years. It hasn’t yet kept me out of combat, but it has saved me plenty of time. And on more than one occasion, it has earned the admiration of my elementary school students.
“Wow!” one of them will exclaim as they see me dash off a sentence lickity-split. “How do you do that?” I can’t help but smile and think of Mr. Ireland, just as I do whenever I see one of the kids having an Aha Experience, or whenever I construct a Venn diagram by drawing a pair of overlapping circles on the board. And I try to pass along a tiny bit of his legacy.
“I learned how to type. You can, too. You’ll never regret it. In fact, you may not believe this, but I once knew someone whose life may have been saved because he knew how to type…”