From Betsy Combier: Two of my four daughters were lucky to have been students of extraordinary teacher Richard Geller at Stuyvesant High School and before they got in, as students in his SSHAT tutoring group. Notice that I dont write "extraordinary MATH teacher".
I dont put math in my description of Mr. Geller, not because he wasnt a terrific math teacher, ( I believe that he was exceptional at teaching math), but because he was a terrific teacher. And that's what I remember.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Geller.
"The Lives They Lived"
When Richard Geller died, students put his catch phrase, “Math is #1,” all over Stuyvesant High School, in New York City, where he had taught. It was taped onto lockers. It was drawn on a couple of desks. It was handwritten on a T-shirt. In the classroom, Geller was passionate and intense and demanding. One student remembered her math grade was the lowest one on her report card, “but it was a Geller grade, and it was the one I was most proud of.” Geller could have retired a decade before he died, but he didn’t want to. He was a math teacher through and through.
This is an edited and condensed version of a speech Geller delivered at Stuyvesant’s graduation in June 2011. He died four months later.
I would like to thank the graduating class for having chosen me as your faculty speaker.
I wondered: Why me? I have been teaching math at Stuyvesant for 29 years and was never chosen before. By the way, 29 is a prime number. There are exactly two factors for 29: 1 and 29.
Maybe I was chosen for the approximately 5 basketballs that I confiscated from students during your four years at Stuyvesant. Or the 17 Frisbees I took away. Or the 113 decks of playing cards. Or the 257 cellphones I took away and brought to Miss Damesek’s office. In case you haven’t figured it out, all those numbers are prime numbers.
No, I don’t think so. I think that you heard three months ago that I have metastasized melanoma cancer in my lungs and that you wanted to honor me for my passion for teaching math. Thank you for honoring me.
Even through all my problems, the best part of my day is teaching math. I have been teaching math for 43 years — another prime number — and still love it. I got lucky. I found a career that I really love.
I have been to many junior-high-school and high-school graduations as a teacher. However, the most important graduations for me were my children’s graduations. Yes, I am a parent of a son and a daughter. Teachers do it, too, you know.
Only when I attended my own children’s graduations did I realize how special parents find graduation. So give your parents a break today. Thank them for everything they have done for you. Let them take lots of pictures. Spend time with them. Let them enjoy it. In fact, please stand up, turn around, face your parents.
I have some homework for you. Assignment No. 1: Volunteer. Tutor for free. Volunteer to help a political candidate. Help your parents. Make dinner, baby-sit, say thank you. Give up your subway seat to someone who is elderly or disabled. Think of others.
Assignment No. 2: Find a career that you enjoy as much as I enjoy teaching math. You will be much happier with your life if you enjoy your job. And if your parents don’t like what you choose, that is their problem, not yours. When they see you happy in your life and career, they will be happy for you, too.
Assignment No. 3: Is 2011 a prime number?
I have loved being part of your four years of Stuyvesant. I have enjoyed watching you grow — physically, mentally and mathematically. I leave you with the following words:
Math is #1.
At 2 a.m. on the day he died, Richard Geller woke from a deep sleep and opened his eyes and began to speak. His son, Jason, was spending the night in the hospital and tried to make out what his father was saying. These would turn out to be the last words Richard Geller ever spoke, and Jason says it was hard to understand him. “Then I realized he was saying: ‘Take one and pass it down, take one and pass it down. Are there any questions?’”