Math or English? The Fateful Choice of a Path

Brother Bechner, The impact of a teacher on a student’s life

The impact of a teacher on a student’s life

by Greg Cunningham

For most of my days in middle and high school, English was my worst subject. It wasn’t the reading; I can never remember a time when I wasn’t reading a book. From the Hardy Boys series to the Three Investigators series, I loved having a new book to read. But grammar, diagramming sentences, direct or indirect objects—none of that made any sense to me. Entering Catholic high school, I had no idea that grammar would be such a huge part of the curriculum.

Math, on the other hand, made perfect sense. In Algebra, I found solving equations relaxing. I saw many parts of math like solving a puzzle, almost like the mystery books of my youth. It certainly helped that I had many dynamic math teachers along the way, none more dynamic than Brother Ryan. While other math teachers complained when their students didn’t show their work on a problem, Brother Ryan would object when we used paper to solve simple math. “You should be able to do that in your head, Sonny!” was a common rant in Brother Ryan’s classroom.

He taught us shortcuts to make doing math in our heads easier: if calculating 15% of something, figure out 10% (which was easy), cut it in half and add the numbers together. He broke down math and made it logical, a process my brain could easily and logically follow.

Meanwhile, the English teachers were droning on about objects, adjective phrases, and verbals. Some of the assigned readings were interesting, but the minute we switched to grammar my brain switched off.

All of that changed during my junior year of high school. One of my friends talked me into trying out for the spring musical. Among the adults involved was Brother Bechner, the faculty advisor. Brother Bechner was an English teacher. He seemed bigger than life. His booming voice filled the combined gymnasium/auditorium we used for rehearsal and he towered over just about everyone.

In reality, Brother Bechner was a giant teddy bear. He was wonderful at teaching students to inflect and project our voices, but was himself uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience. Behind the scenes at play practice he would make suggestions to the director, not how to block a scene but how to teach us the blocking. He could teach anyone to do anything. He was a choreographer, not of musical numbers but of life.

One night during downtime at play practice I was working on my English homework. Those direct and indirect objects were there again. My frustration was obvious. Brother Bechner sat down and slowly explained their meaning and how to find them in a sentence. His explanation was simple and, for the first time, made complete sense to me. “Why hasn’t anyone ever explained them like that until now?” I asked. He just smiled and left me to my work, the great mystery of objects finally revealed.

Brother Bechner taught Honors Senior English and I made it my mission to take that course. My junior year English teacher refused to recommend me for the course, which was a level higher than I’d ever taken. When I met with my guidance counselor he also was skeptical until I told him the story of learning objects from Brother Bechner. “If he could teach me something in five minutes that no other teacher could ever teach me year after year, doesn’t it make sense I should be in his class to see what else he can teach me?” My counselor relented and my schedule was set.

Grammar was no longer a concern during senior year. Our focus was literature and what it could teach us about life. At the end of the year we counted the number of short stories, novels, plays and poems we had read and the number was well over 100. Characters and stories created by Samuel Becket, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot leapt from the page. The class became a continuing lesson about life, almost group therapy for those seeking their future. My grade in English soared higher than it had ever been; but more importantly, I looked forward to the class every day.

Back in calculus class, proofs, theorems and graphs continued to make sense to me. Based on my entire school career, it made perfect sense to major in math at Stonehill College, eventually to become a math teacher. Calculus met four days a week. I began my freshman year majoring in math, minoring in education, and ready to continue the logical sequence of numbers.

It took about three weeks for my college calculus class to cover what had taken a year in high school. As the semester ground on, I was coming to the painful realization that while I liked math, math didn’t particularly like me. During this whole time, memories of Brother Bechner’s class swirled in the back of my mind. How much more fun it had been to dissect literature, debating the author’s intent, asking why this word was used instead of that word.

As the semester wound down, I found the courage to approach my English Composition professor after class. English Composition was required of all freshmen, no matter the major, and I was enjoying our class discussions and doing well with the writing assignments. I told her I was thinking about switching my major to English and she asked, “What’s your major now?” with a hint of surprise in her voice. “Math,” I replied, to which she immediately responded, “You need to change. Absolutely. You’re too good at this.”

Spring semester began my journey as an English major and I never looked back. Every English course I took was better than the last. I knew I had found my calling.

W.P. Kinsella wrote in his book Shoeless Joe, “Hardly anybody recognizes the most significant moments of their life at the time they happen” and this could never be more true than the day I convinced my guidance counselor to put me in Brother Bechner’s class. If not for that class, I have no idea what would have happened in college when I realized that math was no longer for me. I might have figured it out, but the frustration I felt in that calculus class might have gotten the better of me. Thankfully, the confidence built in Brother Bechner’s class showed me how to chart my journey forward.

Brother Bechner died on January 1st this year due to multiple health complications. We had many conversations after I graduated from high school, and he was well aware that he had inspired me to change my major to English. Even after high school, he was still teaching me. I still remember his comment when he was transferred to All Hallows High School in a troubled neighborhood of the Bronx: “It’s hard to give homework to students who don’t know if they’ll be alive the next morning to turn it in.” In this dramatic way, he was the first teacher I ever heard connect a student’s academic performance to their life outside of school. But even among this challenging student population, his teaching persevered.

The past two years have been some of the most challenging for both teachers and students. The pandemic turned learning on its head, and it may take years for the education system to recover. But the one constant that has not changed is the impact teachers have on their students. Throughout the transition from the classroom to Zoom back to the classroom muffled by masks, teachers have continued to be available and present for their students, helping them grow, sparking their imaginations, inspiring and guiding them to find their paths through life. It would take much more than a pandemic to keep teachers like Brother Bechner from doing what they do best.

My father often says he’ll always vote for a tax increase when the money is intended for education. The reason is not because his son happens to be in the education business. As he puts it, “Some people might be able to point to a police officer or bus driver who had a significant impact on their life growing up, but everybody has that one teacher. Ask anyone and they will immediately give you the name of a teacher who had a significant impact on their life.” I am grateful to say I could name several; and I’m surely among hundreds of former students who would put Brother Bechner at the top of their list.

Greg Cunningham is a Blended Learning Specialist with JFYNetWorks.

Other posts authored by Greg can be found here.

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