When I was five years old my parents separated and announced they were getting a divorce.
I was displeased, to say the least. None of my schoolmates had divorced parents. None of them had manic-depressive mothers either, as far as I could tell.
My mom got custody of my younger brother and me, and she tried to keep her mania under control during the ensuing custody battle. She was a good mom 90% of the time.
But when she was depressed it was like being on the set of a movie like Poltergeist or The Exorcist. When her demons escaped they became everyone’s demons.
Not surprisingly, I didn’t do very well in school. I didn’t do any of my homework assignments, and wasn’t very good at keeping up with what was happening in class. I was very good at staring out of the window and daydreaming.
Teachers thought my problem was that I didn’t care. They were right.
Somehow I believed that I was not capable of keeping up, and I was afraid to even try. I felt particularly deficient in math, because there was no hiding my ineptitude. If you got the wrong answer that was the end of it; there was no reward for effort.
I spent several summers doing remedial work, and math was always part of my summer schedule.
Every once in awhile I’d get a teacher who wanted to help me out, but eventually they gave up. They’d tell me that I was capable of doing the work, but in my mind I was just too far behind. Getting up to speed in math was impossible.
Of course, once you decide something is impossible then it is.
When I started my senior year of high school I was living in Panama (my mom moved back to her home country when I was starting ninth grade). My brother and I attended, for want of a better description, a “school for kids of diplomats.”
The kids in that school were expected to fluently speak English, Spanish and French. All the classes were mandatory; there were no electives.
Senior year was going to be a bit dicey for me, in that we were required to take Analytic Geometry, Calculus and Physics. And the Physics class assumed knowledge of Analytic Geometry and all the other math I was supposed to have learned in prior years.
The first day of class the Physics teacher (who was also a college professor, and was teaching our class because the regular teacher had left) made the students go to the blackboard to solve problems; I did poorly, as expected. The professor gruffly dismissed me, and told me that he had no problem flunking seniors who didn’t keep up.
A few weeks later he developed a serious medical condition and had to be replaced.
He designated one of his top students at the University of Panama to take his place. So one day a tall dark-haired fellow named Ernesto Regales showed up to teach us Physics. We worked some equations at the board while the young professor quietly watched.
When I told him I couldn’t work the problems, he smiled in a strange way. He encouraged me to look at the easy problems in the beginning of the textbook chapter that we were on. I nodded appreciatively as if I was going to follow his suggestion.
Of course, that wasn’t going to happen.
Then it was time for our first exam. It involved solving a bunch of problems like this one: ‘Boat A is traveling North at 15 miles per hour and Boat B is traveling West at 7 miles per hour; at what speed are the two boats moving away from each other?’
These problems were exactly like the ones we had been working at the blackboard, i.e. the ones I wasn’t able to solve.
I wasn’t able to solve them because I didn’t understand the Pythagorean theorem. I knew there was some kind of formula for solving these problems, but I didn’t know the formula or how it worked.
So, when I took a look at the problems on the test I knew it would be impossible for me to solve any of them. I spent about 20 minutes with the test (daydreaming, mostly) and then went to turn it in.
I waited until one of the genius students turned in her test, to minimize the chance that the professor would look at my test and see it was completely blank.
I handed in the test and quickly turned away. Just as I got to my desk he asked me to return. He was looking at me with that same weird gaze, and the placid eyes. He was obviously a religious nut. I knew this as soon as he announced we’d all pray before our exam.
His prayers were delivered with an intensity I’d never witnessed before. He’d close his eyes tightly, then enter a solemn rapture as he spoke softly to God, beseeching him to give us strength and grace.
I felt like he actually expected God to help us if he prayed hard enough.
So there he was with that rapturous look, encouraging me to spend all the time I had to solve the physics problems on the exam. His expectations were well-intentioned, but completely unrealistic.
The last thing I wanted to do was lie to him, so I confessed that I had not learned the formula and had no idea how to use it even if it were given to me. He was unmoved by my confession.
“Well maybe there’s a way if you just sit and think about it,” he said. He was so confident, even after my blunt confession, I figured he was going to give me the formula out of pity. “No,” he said, “but if you find a way that’s valid I’ll give you credit for figuring out how to approach the problem.”
That was a shock!
Getting credit for something other than a correct answer on a math test? I’d never heard of that before.
I plopped down in my desk, and tried to figure out what was going on. What exactly was this odd teacher expecting me to do? Surely, he didn’t believe I was going to derive the formula on my own, right?
Every time I looked over at him he’d smile beatifically. I was convinced there was some obvious trick that I was somehow overlooking.
I got out a blank sheet of paper and started diagramming two boats moving away from each other. I examined the triangular relationship, wondering if I could use a ruler to measure it. I got up and asked him if I could use my ruler. He said I could use anything that was in my desk, except for the textbook.
By now, you’ve probably guessed that, using the ruler, I discovered (in a very crude way) the relationship expressed in the Pythagorean theorem. I created my own problems where all of the numbers worked out to a whole number.
That is, I considered a boat going North at 4 miles per hour and a boat going West at 3 miles per hour, and concluded that they were moving away from each other at 5 miles per hour. I did this by drawing a line 4 inches long going up, and 3 inches long going left, and then measuring the distance between the ends of those lines. That line was exactly 5 inches (which is what the Pythagorean formula would yield).
Of course, Professor Regales’ problems would not have answers with whole numbers. But once I discovered the relationship using the ruler I knew I had at least something I could put down in the answer section.
As soon as the test was over I opened my textbook and looked at the Pythagorean formula; I was ecstatic to see that my ruler theory was valid. I assumed I’d still flunk the test, but figuring out the underlying approach was satisfying in a way that’s hard to describe.
Sort of like hitting a game winning field goal, except even better.
The satisfaction came from knowing that I had done something that, only moments before, seemed completely and utterly impossible.
All it took was for me to try, which I had never done before. I had always expected to fail, and up til that moment that expectation became the only thing I believed in.
What made Professor Regales seem so weird was that he believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself.
After that test, I decided to try to learn math. I had to go back and work problems on my own from prior year’s textbooks, but whenever I had a question Regales was always eager to help me figure it out.
Other students helped me too. And the strangest thing is that, once I started trying, I found that I actually liked math. I liked Physics even more, and I discovered had a knack for solving really difficult problems.
I graduated with excellent grades in all my classes, but my best grades were in Calculus and Physics. I wound up getting accepted to Tulane, which was a miracle of truly epic proportions. Eventually I made my way to law school and did very well (e.g. law review, Moot Court team, etc.).
A few years ago someone told me that Professor Regales had passed away. He died young, the victim of some form of cancer. The thing I remember most about him was his desire to be a priest, and help people develop their spirituality.
I don’t know what kind of priest Professor Regales would have been, but I know he was a great teacher. He approached his job in a way that was different than most of my other teachers; he simply smiled and encouraged us to try.
I remember telling him one day that I didn’t believe in God, not to hurt his feelings, but so that I didn’t feel hypocritical when he asked us to pray before our exams. He said he understood, and that he appreciated my sincerity.
Of course, he said it with that strange smile, which made his eyes seem to glow.
Oh, and remember that test with the Pythagorean theorem? Professor Regales gave me a 91, because he said he didn’t really care about exact answers as long as you understood how to look at the problem.
Very few of life’s problems, it turns out, have exact answers.
Certainty is nothing more than a point of view, one that is often quite debilitating—unless you are confident of what is possible rather than what’s supposedly impossible.
About eighteen months after I posted this Professor Regales daughter emailed me to say how much she appreciated my posting this. She had been googling his name and found the article.
You see Professor Regales died quite young, and his daughter was bereft of the time that a child usually gets to spend with a parent.
As soon as I read her email my eyes welled up with tears. I was glad to be able to do something kind (albeit inadvertently) for his family.
After all, I can honestly say that he literally changed my life for the better. And I don’t know where I’d be if he had not done that.
Oh, and maybe it’s a coincidence, but the word “regales” in Spanish means “gift.”