The boy in the blue parka

An excerpt from the solutions based book “Why We Failed: 40 Years of Education Reform” by a teacher who lived it. To buy the book click here.

As with most sophomore students in one of my three geometry classes, Gary Allerdyce chose his own seat on the first day of class. I never argued with students about where they sat unless it distracted from the ebb and flow of instruction. Gary parked himself in the student desk right up against the desk high heater between two bay windows at the side of my classroom.

Gary was a “low rider,” sitting slumped down low in his seat, leaning on the heater. Every day he wore the same dark blue parka with a fur-fringe hood that made him appear bigger and more ominous than he was. A mix of smells – pot and body odor – emanated from the jacket. I don’t know whether it was because of his odor or his surly demeanor, but his classmates kept their distance.

Gary and I reached an uneasy and unspoken agreement early on: He didn’t bother me and I didn’t bother him. I attempted a couple of times to engage him in one-on-one conversations. When he failed to write anything but his name on tests, I made a few calls to his home. When no one returned my calls or responded to computer progress reports and report cards that showed his lack of progress, naturally, I stopped calling.

At the end of the first quarter I gave Gary a 50 on his report card. Many public schools have a school-wide grading system that won’t allow for less. The hope is the student will do better the second quarter and numerically they’ll be able to pass by year’s end. A zero won’t allow for that and a report card zero is just a way for frustrated teachers to write kids off for the year.

Year two of teaching

I was in year two of teaching and the first year of preparing students for the New York State Geometry Regents exam, which was a big deal in this suburban community populated mostly by IBM employees. They had high expectations for their children, especially in math. Earning acceptance to competitive colleges was the norm.

So my mind was not on Gary Allerdyce. My attention was directed toward the students who were motivated…for whatever reason.

Like most rookie teachers, I used the textbook as a framework for my curriculum and lesson plans with only a few minor edits based on advice from other more experienced math teachers, advice I rarely sought due to the fact that I didn’t want to appear ignorant in front of my students, my principal or other teachers.

While my instructional approach failed to produce stellar results, it kept me in good standing with the school principal, parents and most of my students…until one gray April day when we struggled through a challenging unit related to right triangles with similar shapes and different sizes.

To buy the book click here.

I was trying to explain why the length of the altitude drawn to the hypotenuse is the mean proportional between the segments of the hypotenuse and get the students to prove why that was true and solve numerical problems based on different dimensions for the triangles.

It was an archaic, convoluted, abstract, abstruse bit of math no one would ever use anywhere except for in geometry class, but that didn’t stop the state education department from requiring it.

The students – many of whom had class averages of 95 percent or above – were confused, as well as lost and frustrated.

I tried to explain the concepts for what felt like the tenth time using my most effective teaching technique (SPEAK MUCH SLOWER AND VERY LOUDLY). I was gesturing wildly at my elaborate chalk diagram on the chalkboard when I asked a question, hoping someone – ANYONE – would give me the right answer.

“So for this right triangle with the altitude drawn to the hypotenuse and the altitude as the mean proportional what must be the length of the altitude?” I asked.


“C’mon guys this isn’t that hard. What’s the length of the altitude?”

That’s when I heard it: “Eight.”

I turned around to face the class: “Who said that?”

The answer came from Gary Allerdyce.

I ignored the obvious and blurted back: “Correct!”

To this day I have no idea why Gary jumped in with the correct answer. My best guess is he was tired of hearing me say the same thing over and over slower and more loudly than the time before and just wanted me to move on.

When the class ended, I tried to corner Gary, but he beat me to the door and disappeared into the noisy, crowded hallway.

That night I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking: “What have I done? I let this kid sit slouched next to the heater for seven months and all this time he had the potential to do well in math and in school.”

I knew I was an inexperienced teacher with a lot to learn, but I never thought of myself as someone who didn’t care if students fell through the cracks.

All night I laid awake trying to come up with a plan.

The next morning I began class with a review problem on the chalkboard and asked Gary to follow me into the hall, which he did, obediently. I closed the classroom door and made my best pitch: “Look Gary you obviously know a lot more than you’ve shown in class,” I said. “You knew the answer yesterday when no one else did. I made a mistake by writing you off and I want to set things straight by giving you a second chance right now.

“We both know that with the three 50 percent quarterly averages you already have on your report card numerically you can’t pass Geometry unless you get a 100 percent for the fourth quarter and a 100 percent on the Regents final exam. Let’s put all that behind us. If you pass the Regents exam I will give you a passing grade for the year and I’ll help you any way I can between now and the final exam. What do you think?”

I held my breath. It was the best option I could come up with. I had a strong feeling I cared a lot more about Gary’s answer than he did.

To buy the book click here.

Gary hesitated. Then, he smiled a little (maybe it was a smirk) and said: “If I pass the test, I pass for the year. Right?”

“That’s right,” I said.

He nodded in agreement.

Now we were playing by Gary’s rules. He still wore the fur-fringe hooded parka, and he still sat slumped in his seat near the heater. He still had an air of pot and body odor about him. He never did homework as far as I could tell, but he started trying on tests and quizzes. He even asked and answered a few questions in class.

He passed only a single unit exam all year and that was late in May, but his Regents review book was all marked up with what looked like his attempts to solve geometry problems. When I saw his review book splayed open on his desk during review, I had high hopes we’d both pull this rabbit out of a hat on the June Geometry Regents exam.

Then two days before the test the New York State Education Department reported that a copy of the New York State Geometry Regents exam was stolen from a school in New York City, and the New York State Education Department was cancelling the year-end Geometry Regents exam – statewide.

Schools were instructed to use students’ four quarterly grades to determine their final grade in place of the Geometry Regents exam grade. Our math department disagreed with the state’s decision, and we tried to circumvent them. We administered the purloined Geometry Regents exam anyway to gauge student performance, but the word on the street was the exam didn’t count.

On the day of the exam, only a fraction of students showed up to take the test. Gary wasn’t one of them.

I called his home but this time the number was disconnected.

Gary never showed up the following school year. I never saw him again.

To buy the solutions-based book “Why We Failed: 40 years of Education Reform click here.

For more info call Guaranteed Press (518) 366-6148.

About Lonnie Palmer
In 1970, Lonnie Palmer graduated from Union College in Schenectady, NY, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics and planned to continue on to a Ph.D. program but was interrupted by a notice from the U.S. Government – a draft notice. Knowing his low number would preempt plans to continue his education, Palmer took a temporary position teaching high school science — and a reluctant education reformer was born. read more


%d bloggers like this: