Richard Mistretta: Algebra • K12 Intl. Academy
By MeineFraulein, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
The thing with math is that it has a somnolent effect – you head to school with fresh hair, fresh teeth, fresh clothes, and fresh thoughts only to find that once the figures are placed in front of you, the yawning commences. That was a typical math class for me. Then came eighth grade and what I thought would be the most boring math course yet – algebra. But I hadn’t yet met The General of the eighth grade Algebra Army. That General was the mighty Mr. Richard “Chaos” Mistretta.
Mr. Mistretta had an elastic face, always stretched into a smile, and a fuzzy white beard. He looked a bit like Santa Claus, I thought. And he couldn’t have been jollier. After every other sentence his voice crackled in a hearty chuckle. His jokes might have been offensive if they had been uttered by any other teacher, but Mr. Mistretta was unique. His voice, authoritative but amiable, instantly put me at ease. One could get away with an interjection that other teachers might find rude. We could even scribble on the whiteboard like a hoard of kindergarteners once the problem on it was solved.
Mr. Mistretta was an easy-going person. He knew we were not in his class to improve our behavior – we were there to learn math. He had no prejudices. If we did well, he was happy; if we didn’t, well, then he’d see that we did. And once he did, he’d assure us, “You are a terrific group,” and we’d again hear that hearty chuckle of his that said, “Math’s not the end of the world; it’s just the beginning of the day.”
I do not think Mr. Mistretta really saw math as doing math. To start his classes, he turned on a catchy tune from the Beach Boys or occasionally the Beatles. And when other math teachers expect pupils to all think in a single, uniform way, Mr. Mistretta put up think-outside-the-box puzzles for us to puzzle out. “Now, we’re going to tackle this monster,” he’d say, as we faced a difficult-looking system of equations or a complicated polynomial, which was where I got my idea of an Algebra Army fearlessly following their general into battle.
There was no space for big, fancy words like “substitute” in his class when something simpler like “plug it in” worked just fine. And we didn’t “cancel anything out”; we “boom, boom, boomed” it or “bang, bang, banged” it, for effect. One could almost forget that we were actually doing algebra. From the boring world of linear inequalities, functions, and slopes, this was quite a change. No, this was something entirely different. This was Mr. Mistretta’s class.
On General Mistretta’s Algebra Army Base (i.e., the math classroom), I did not even need to worry about complex algebraic concepts. The General thoughtfully broke problems down into bite-sized pieces so that we had time to chew thoughtfully and then swallow. And just like eating pi – sorry, pie – we all ended up fuller from the slower intake. And when test time came and everyone was a jittery bag of butterflies, General Mistretta assured us, “You’re making things more complicated than they are. Find your plan of attack and then tackle.” I couldn’t have asked for better advice.
Mr. Mistretta could have us coming to class feeling like nitwits and leaving happier than camels on Hump Day. There is no other teacher I recall so vividly. His jovial, fun-loving character and cordial laugh have been implanted in my mind. Indeed, he is a teacher unique in his domain and beyond.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.