Posted on January 13, 2008 - by MG
Our teenage daughter made me very happy today by telling me that she’s choosing maths as one of her four ‘A’ Levels next year.
Maths is a subject that she’s always found a challenge – and I like to see her push herself, to do a subject that she really doesn’t find easy. This year I’ve had occasion to field phone calls from several annoyed teachers complaining about her not handing in coursework on time – and the maths teacher was one of them. But in the past few weeks her attitude has shifted somewhat. I hope it lasts!
Something similar happened to me – maths was always a subject I grappled with, and yet bizarrely I ended up taking it as an ‘A’ level and even having to sit the Oxford University entrance exam’s ‘maths for scientists’ paper. Crumbs that was scary.
In fact, it’s fair to say that maths was my weakest subject at ‘O’ level. I wasn’t an all As student, far from it. I even failed my maths mock ‘O’ level, which ignited a panic – you needed maths ‘O’ level for most science university degree courses in those days. So my mother found me a tutor – Graham.
Graham was the partner of one of my mother’s best friends. He was vague and eccentric, but a brilliant mathematician and a teacher at Xaverian 6th Form College. An unreformed hippy, Graham was fair-haired and raggedy-bearded with sad blue eyes and a pensive countenance He hardly ever smiled, but told many jokes.
Graham’s Victorian terraced house in Chorlton was a shrine to his interest in music and his travels in India. The walls were draped with rugs, pictures of Hindu deities, old stringed instruments including a sitar. The front room was so crammed with antiques and knick-knacks that you could barely shuffle in between the upright piano and the setees, Ottoman and mahogany coffee table. The air was infused with the smell of marijuana mingled into sandalwood and cloves.
While Graham and I talked quietly about maths in the back room, my mother and her friend would drink tea and talk about German literature in the front room. Graham would look over what I’d done in class that day, explain anything I didn’t understand and sketch out problems on scraps of paper. He’d chain-smoke hand-rolled cigarettes throughout and I’d try not to show that it bothered me. When we’d finished Graham and I would join the others in the front room and we’d eat poppy seed cake or some other home-baked German cake. Graham would play – very badly, a Chopin Nocturne, almost oblivious to our conversation.
It was Graham who persuaded me to do ‘A’ level maths. When I told him I was too thick he just shook his head. “You’re good at maths. You’d be even better if you just believed it.” It was Graham who persuaded me to move away from my beloved high school in the middle of the lower 6th, to Xaverian – a place which would provide the serious hard work and challenge I’d need to have a shot at Oxford.
It was Graham who nodded calmly when I told him in a breathless panic that I…I who couldn’t string two numbers together…would have to take the maths entrance exam paper for Oxford. I was almost choking with fear.
Graham and his then-partner had a child together – Sebastian – named for J.S. Bach. Since he refused to take money for the tutorials, I used to babysit Sebastian a little, until I left for Uni. But nothing like as much as I owed them.
Many years later I asked after Graham of my mother’s friend. Apparently he’d died alone of some gastric complaint and been discovered several days later. A pretty sad way to go and I really felt for his son. Graham wasn’t a good friend and was definitely a difficult man, but he stuck by me that year for no personal gain, just because he believed in me. That’s a REAL teacher.
Anyway…thanks to Graham I got B’s at both ‘O’ level and ‘A’ level maths. And I still hold as one of my personal triumphs that my mark for the maths entrance exam wasn’t my lowest – I got an alpha minus. My tutor at Oxford maybe thought I was some sort of maths genius (biochem candidates notoriously did appallingly on that paper…) – could be that’s what tipped him into awarding me the entrance scholarship.
But honestly it was a stroke of luck; a good paper and the calming influence of Graham Sadler, may he rest in peace.