The Gift that Keeps on Giving


I like to tell my high school students not to worry, things will work out for them, as they did for me. They think the bearded gentleman, who teaches them English literature and writing, always knew what he was doing as a teenager and always got straight A’s. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In grammar school I was fine. No problems.

Then came the horror story known as freshman year of high school. That’s when I accumulated 11 failures on my report card catapulting me to summer school for Algebra I. Eleven failures, you may be wondering, and you were not left back? There’s a reason for that. At Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J. , we received report cards every month. That’s 10 report cards a year. And apparently I spread out my failures with great aplomb, except for algebra.

I remember sitting at my desk that first week in class and thinking that I’d better pay strict attention to this instructor because “letters” were now involved in math problems. It was a concept I never grasped. As the months wore on, my grades sank from an 88 to 79 to 68 to 66 to 65 and so on. The final grade was well below 70. So off to Madison High School I went for a six-week course in algebra. Sadly, I continued my string of failure. And if I failed summer school, I would not be allowed back at Delbarton.

What to do?

The fellow teaching me that summer was named Mr. Peyser. Good guy, and I actually understood a bit of what he was teaching, but not enough. My average was 68. The last week of summer school, however, he announced there would be a final test. And if those of us not passing right now passed this test, he would pass us for the summer. A great offer, but I resigned myself to the inevitable: FAILURE.

The morning of the test, I arrived early to class. As as I sat there waiting, I heard a distinct rumble outside. Up pulled someone on a motorcycle wearing a leather jacket, and spinning his way into a parking spot. But when he took off his helmet, I knew I had a chance to pass Algebra I. It was Mr. Peyser. I realized then that here was a man I could reason with. Because my algebra teacher actually rode a motorcycle that meant he was a regular guy. And so when he got to class, I presented him with a proposition. It went something like this:

“Hi, Mr. Peyser, do you have a moment?”

“Sure, Joe, what’s up.”

“Look, I know I’m failing your course and, honestly, I just don’t get algebra. It’s the letters and numbers thing.”

He nodded as if he understood.

“If you could just give me a “D” so I can return to Delbarton, otherwise I’ll be kicked out. I not only would appreciate it, I promise I’ll never return to summer school again.”

He smiled and said, “Well, let’s see what happens.”

I took the final that day and I knew I didn’t pass.

A week later, my summer school grade arrived. I had sneaked out to the mailbox to intercept the grade before my mother and father got hold of it. There was the envelope holding my immediate future. I opened it slowly, unfolded the pink paper inside, carefully, winced and …

A grade of “C.”

My parents were pleased and my father gave me one of his speeches about how hard work always wins the day.

I was graduated from Delbarton three years later. But two things gnawed at me during the graduation exercises: not really passing Algebra I in freshman year meant that I was not officially a high school graduate. And that I never thanked Mr. Peyser for his “gift” which made my graduation from high school — and the rest of my life — possible.

Mr. Peyser, wherever you are, thank you.