The Train Wreck and Miss Kaste

I did better at academics in High School than I did at sports. Fortunately.

I quickly learned that the humanities were my forte. I also did well in English. It was a natural given my love of books and communication skills.

Science and math proved to be a bit more challenging.

There’s an old adage that we are supposed to work hard at those things we find difficult, that it gives us character. My belief is that I already have plenty of character. If I had any more, little men in white coats would be chasing me with nets.

I prefer to spend my energy on things I enjoy, like reading a good book or hiking in the wilderness. I have little tolerance for doing things that I don’t do well or fail to interest me. In other words, the Protestant Ethic and I have serious compatibility problems.

But I can be stubborn. Math is a good example. In the fourth grade I discovered that long division was nasty. I got beyond that but word problems gave me a complex. Two trains are hurtling at each other on the same track with Train A going 90 miles per hour and Train B going 70. They are 252.5296 miles apart. How long will it be before Train A conductor says, “Ooooh shit!”

Not nearly as soon as I did.

My own expletive arrived on my lips .0000001 seconds after seeing the problem. I concentrated on sending the teacher vibes. “Curt is not here today. You do not see Curt. You will not call on Curt.”

But I continued plugging away at math. I even managed to get A’s in Algebra I and Geometry. Algebra II was different. That’s when I ran head on into Miss Kaste. It was not a pleasant experience.

Miss Kaste, according to those who were seriously into math, was very good at what she did. Students leaving her class were reputed to have a solid foundation in the basics and be well prepared to move on to the ethereal worlds of calculus and trigonometry.

Basics, I quickly learned, meant that there was one way of coming up with answers and that way was chiseled in stone. One did not diverge from accepted formulas or leave out steps; right answers obtained the wrong way were wrong answers. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

This created a problem. I had a true talent for coming up with right answers the wrong way and this brought me unwanted attention. I could have lived with that except for another problem, Miss Kaste’s teaching technique. She oozed sarcasm. She made people cry. My response was to freeze up. I started dreading her classes and developed the proverbial ‘bad attitude.’ I received my first C in high school and vowed never to take another math course. Life is short and then you die.

It was my decision and my loss. Miss Kaste was not to blame. Still, it speaks to the power of teachers to turn students on, or off, to various subjects. I wasn’t a total dunce at math; ironically, I scored in the 98th percentile on the Iowa Test in math the same year. Theoretically, that placed me in the top two percent of math students.

The upside of my decision was that I saw an immediate improvement in my GPA and attitude. The down side was that it eliminated a number of future options, particularly in the fields of higher education. It was an era when the social sciences were eager to prove their scientific nature.

This blog is part of a series in celebration of the 50th High School Reunion of the Class of 1961 of El Dorado Union High School in Placerville California. Next up: Bleeding Like a Speared Mammoth… the Joys of High School Chemistry Lab.

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