My years as Superman's pal
It’s not a story problem. But it’s a story—about math—and a problem.
I went to elementary school—Coventry—during the 1950s, the Cold War era. We practiced the “duck-and-cover” technique of sitting on the floor with our backs to a wall, bringing our knees up, and putting our heads on our knees with our arms wrapped around our heads. Doing that would protect us from the atomic bomb they assured us would be coming.
My third-grade teacher, a simple and not very insightful person, who was born in the late-1800s (and who also, by some cruel twist of fate, became my fourth-grade teacher), told us how, when the Russians did start to drop bombs on Cleveland, we would be taken away in buses with glass tops (so we could watch for the planes) to some forest, somewhere, without our parents.
I spent most of my time in her class doing two things: either staring out the window, fantasizing about Superman coming to save us all from “the Russians” and me from my school and teacher (and, in the process, making me his pal, instead of Jimmy Olsen); or making up jokes. As I got older, the Superman fantasies were replaced by writing songs and creating choral arrangements. Actually following the classes and their lessons never quite kicked in.
It was also during third grade when some man came in and, with the teacher, pulled each kid aside for a few minutes to pigeonhole us. This man—a skinny guy with a gray crew cut and a drab suit—said to me, “You’re good at music and writing, so you’re not going to be good at math and science.” I thought that was a little odd, because I was fascinated by math and science, but I said, “Whatever,” and went back to my desk to stare out the window.
So, now armed with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to be good at math and science, I never bothered to try to learn or understand what was being taught about them and always got the lowest grades possible in those subjects.
Then, in the eighth grade, when I still thought there was a chance I might give college a try—probably a music school, if anything—I became a little concerned about my math scores. I knew that in the ninth grade was when you started something called algebra, which sounded frightening. So I told my parents, to their complete shock, that I wanted to take algebra in summer school, for no credit, so that when it came to the real thing, in ninth-grade math class, I would understand it and get a better grade in it.
I attended summer school and I wound up loving algebra. It was the most fun I’d ever experienced in an academic setting. I found strong similarities between doing algebra and arranging music. And it was like doing puzzles, which I also loved.
I walked to Heights High from Coventry and Mayfield every morning that summer holding a tiny transistor radio with its little earphone, listening to songs like “Walk Like a Man” by the Four Seasons, “Fingertips” by 11-year-old Stevie Wonder, “It’s My Party” by Leslie Gore, “Surf City” by Jan and Dean, and “If You Wanna Be Happy” (“If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife . . .”) by Jimmy Soul. I’d come home after the class and listen to folk albums by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Limelighters, and Tom Paxton.
That summer the Baseball All-Star Game was played at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. All-Star games were still played during the daytime back then, so on July 9, I rushed home to watch it on our black-and-white TV, seeing all-time greats such as Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, Al Kaline and Cleveland’s Jim “Mudcat” Grant. (The National League won, 5-3.)
It was a good summer. And I got an A in the algebra class—in summer school, for no credit.
Then ninth grade started and I could hardly wait for my first algebra class. But it turned out to be the year of the so-called “New Math,” which involved a whole new textbook with a brand-new method of teaching algebra. I didn’t understand one thing about it, all year, and I flunked the class and never thought about college again.
The Russians never did get around to dropping bombs on Cleveland Heights and Coventry School. The school system, however, did drop that “New Math” thing after a few years and went back to teaching algebra the way I’d learned it in summer school. Too late for me, though. But I was good at music and writing, so that’s what I did, and do. So I guess they were right.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.