That year, Mr. Clark taught four sections of high-school algebra. The classes met the first four periods of the day, finishing up before we juniors, who took the course, went to lunch in the basement cafeteria. It was pretty early in the semester that we noticed that Mr. Clark, who is dead now, had developed a persistent and pervasive habit of speech.
Some of us were also taking speech and debate. The teacher there, Mr. Schultz, would have us do what he called a “clapping speech.” The clapping speech was meant to illuminate the little things we all say and do without thinking. Like saying “um” or “you know” or like looking up at the ceiling when you are trying to think of the next word or licking your lips during the pauses between words in your prepared text. Mr. Schultz listened to us give a speech—mine was on “Harvesting the Riches of the Sea”—and while you were talking, he picked out a particular tick you were repeating. Mine was fiddling with a shirt button, I think. And then he clapped his hands together, startlingly loud. You’d jump, but you would have to go on giving your speech, all the time trying to figure out what it was you were doing.
Mr. Clark said “for it” at the end of his sentences. He did it so many times that you would be clapping all the time if he were giving a clapping speech. He didn’t seem to notice. The “for it” was kind of a vestigial phrase. “This is what you would do for it.” It got worse as the semester wore on, to the point where he would chalk out an equation on the board and turn back to the class and say simply “for it,” pointing at the conclusion, the punctuation of some sentence he was speaking to himself. And then he even began saying “for it, for it,” sending my classmates, who had begun counting the number of “for its,” into fits of laughter. “Hey, what’s so funny, for it?” he asked. It was something. He retired the next year.
All the classes had been driven to distraction by this. Everyone was keeping track. We would compare the figures at lunch. It was Mark Maxwell who organized the effort and designated an official counter for each class. At lunch each day, he posted the final tally on the cafeteria bulletin board—the aggregate numbers, the total daily accumulation. He kept running charts, the bars of the graphs in different colors, of the trends and averages, the correlation with the days of the week and the weather. There was a special category for the double “for it” and a place for the triple “for it” that never did come.
Mr. Clark commented often on our attentiveness. We were hanging on to his every word. We waited through his long string of explanations and proofs about squares and their roots to get to the periodic moment where he would conclude with a “for it.” We watched the scorekeeper in our class make another hash mark in his notebook. We looked for patterns at lunch. Did the frequency diminish over time? Increase? Some tried to cook the books, asking questions about the material designed to have Mr. Clark reflect meditatively. This made it all the more likely he would utter the formula during his thoughtful reflections.
Mr. Clark gave an assignment to create our own quadratic equations. We all used i and t as variables. At the board, Mr. Clark reduced and cancelled our redundant integers, our camouflage of multiples. He drew the final = and solved for x. The answer was always the same: x = 4it. He tapped the chalk on the board a couple times, dotting the i, and turned to us triumphantly, “The solution is four-eye-tee, for it.” We applauded.
We didn’t learn a thing, of course, about quadratics. It’s true what they say about high-school math. I never needed it in life after high school. I am writing this, years later, on graph paper I found lying around. I use it to keep the lines of my handwriting more or less level. I thought I would jot down this memory before it got away from me. I like filling in the spaces of the grid, one letter to a square, a word or two or three in each ten-by-ten box of squares. I am doing this early in the morning before my kids wake up. They find pretty much everything I do now very, very strange.
March 8, 2002