Karen and I enjoy a good debate. Last Friday night, we sparred over the significance of eye contact with another human, or even our dog Abby, who when overwhelmed with too much eye contact will look away. We debated about whether looking someone in the eye is a sign of social dominance, friendliness, affirmation, or something else.
Karen argued that eye contact is generally a good thing and signifies that you are interested in the person you are looking at and in what that person is saying. If you look down or away from a person rather than meeting his or her gaze, you are considered to be distracted or uninterested. I countered that eye contact isn’t always a good thing. For instance, if my daughter is backpacking alone through the Balkan Mountains, she should not make eye contact with a man who would consider prolonged eye contact to be an advance toward intimacy or a bear who would consider a long stare as an invitation to dinner.
So, in some cultures and settings, it is considered more polite to have only brief eye contact, especially between people of different social registers, like a student and a teacher. But what do I know…I lost the debate.
The morning after I lost the debate, Karen was shopping for jalapeño jelly and veggies at the Farmer’s Market while making eye contact with everyone and she bumped into my kindergarten teacher, Mary Brock, her husband Leonard, and their daughter Dana.
Leonard Brock drove a school bus and remembers our children well, including Brandon, who was a very quiet lad. One day Leonard completed the after school bus route and he got up from his seat preparing to lock down the bus and noticed a blond head in the back. Brandon had fallen asleep. Leonard started up the bus and took Brandon home. Brandon apparently believed that he would get home eventually without asserting that right verbally. I can relate to my son sitting on a bus quietly going for a ride back to the bus barn because it’s probably what I would have done when I was five.
Karen and I marveled that Mary remembers one child among many after 52 years have passed. My memories at five-years old, of Mrs. Brock and that two room kindergarten in 1965, just a stones throw southwest of the old Limestone School, are remarkably few, and yet they are crystal clear.
I had a feeling like the world had suddenly become too big, like a big yellow bus I couldn’t get off and I was unable to look anyone in the eye for more than two seconds. The walk to school on Mission Drive was a pit bull obstacle course, although in hindsight, the dog I feared was a poodle with a Napoleon complex. Texas Instruments had not yet revolutionized calculators and I was still a year away from the fat pencil and Big Chief paper. So I performed complex math in my head, addition and subtraction, while diverting my gaze from anything that moved.
One day I held up my hand for the first time. I said, “I know what 16 + 16 equals.” Mrs. Brock was perplexed and either didn’t know the answer or was stunned at my foray into full sentences and complex math so I said, “32,” and I sat back and stared at the cotton looping of my towel avoiding any further eye contact.
Mary, Dana, and Leonard
Karen mentioned to Mary, a blog post I wrote several years ago about Limestone School. Mary’s eyes twinkled and she said, “I remember your husband!” She told Karen, “He was quiet, shy, wouldn’t look me in the eye. But he was good at math!”
What is astounding is not that I remember any of that, but that Mary Brock remembers.
Would Mrs. Brock be surprised that the kid who was good at math is now an amateur poet?
Or did she already know, because that is what teachers do, help us become who we are?
It’s the reason why teachers are so underpaid and yet so beloved.
Karen came home and told me about their conversation and we marveled that we had just been talking about eye contact the previous evening. Mary Brock knew my five-year old identity well, and so I wrote this verse about how teachers help shape us into the selves that we do not yet own at that age, nor could we articulate our identity at that age. But we do have these moments hidden away that flash before us at times, moments that remind us how we got to be ourselves.
One Plus One is 32
We were ring around the rosie kids
sitting on the floor indian style
doing math in our heads.
And if we were lucky we had a teacher
who drew from the well of fresh springs,
answers to questions never asked.
A teacher knows when our world is too big or too small,
and when we can’t seem to get off the bus,
because nobody else can see us,
lost in plain sight cradling the answer,
to a question we do not understand.
Our eyes meet, a hand raised,
a teacher knows, so we say it out loud.
We speak because she hears,
the peaceful and the angry
the lovely and the broken.
A teacher looks upon a child with unbroken gaze.
Her gaze is forever new in a child’s eyes,
and she sees what others cannot,
that poetry is math
and math is poetry
and one plus one is 32.
“The highlights of my teaching career were my students, to see their eyes light up when they learned something – such as tying their shoes or whatever we were doing at the time – was such a reward. I wouldn’t change anything if I had my life to do over. I would be a teacher all over again.” Mary Brock
In 1981, as an instructor at Limestone Elementary School, Mary Brock was named the Bartlesville Public School District’s first-ever Teacher of the Year. In 2011, she became part of the second class inducted into the Bartlesville Public School Foundation’s Educators Hall of Fame.