You meet a lot of people over the course of a 30-year career – even if you do skip most of the group dinners and all of the receptions. If you are lucky, there are a few close friends and perhaps a mentor or two. At the other end of the continuum, there are so many interactions that barely registered at the time they occurred or have long ago faded from memory. Some of those forgotten people may be among the five people you meet in heaven, but probably not. And then there are the groups of people in between those two extremes.
Of course, there are your co-workers. Some may fit into one of the two groups described above, but others…
- There are those with whom you form the type of bond that comes only from working so hard as a team not just to complete a project, but to face a challenge, to excel, to achieve a greater, shared goal (even if you don’t fully achieve it).
- And those with whom you form the bond that comes from being there together for the journey of life – new homes, children born, parents lost, first days of school, or little things like the bat in the hallway or rebuilding the office staircase and other curious decisions by the boss.
Next, there are the people you interacted with regularly, but not often, over a long period of time. You stayed connected with those people and consider them an important part of your life.
- The contemporary whom you heard speak at a conference early in your career who just blew you away with her perspective on exciting topics like validity and measurement precision.
- The elder whom you wanted as a member of every TAC that you facilitated, not only because of the wisdom he shared about state assessment, but primarily because with a brief glance in his direction he could let you know whether the meeting had veered off course or you still had control of the room.
- The people with whom you spent 2-hour stints over three days working the conference registration table year after year after year.
Finally, there are people you met no more than a handful of times, or perhaps only once, who nevertheless left a lasting impression. Today, I am thinking about one of those people, Marilyn Rindfuss. Last Friday would have been her 84th birthday. I met Marilyn in her role as national mathematics consultant for Harcourt Educational Measurement, but as described in her obituary, the mathematics evangelist I met was just one facet of her remarkable life as a teacher, professional tennis player and coach of national champion college tennis teams, wife and mother. Often, we know so little about the people we meet.
My encounter with Marilyn occurred in 2001 or 2002 during one of our 2-day quarterly come-to-Jesus meetings with Harcourt in San Antonio in my role as part of the MCAS team for the Massachusetts Department of Education. As I didn’t spend much time with the content people during those meetings, we would have met at lunch or during one of those group dinners I mentioned in the opening – Harcourt did do group dinners very well. During that meal, I heard the story (from someone else at the table) of the time Marilyn stopped the car to go into a field and measure the circumference of a bale of hay so that she would have realistic measurements for a potential test question. I also learned of one of her mathematical pet peeves – the one shown in the photo accompanying this post that triggered my memory of her last week.
Actually, “pet peeve” is probably not the proper description given the glee with which she described finding something in a store priced “.99¢” – walking up to the soon-to-be-befuddled cashier – handing her or him a penny and telling them to keep the change – then making the most of the teachable moment.
At some point during the meal, I must have mentioned my daughter, who would have been around 8 years old at the time. Before the meeting ended the following day, Marilyn came up to me with a gift for my daughter – a book called One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale which tells the story of a girl who, applying her knowledge of mathematics, turns “a reward of one grain of rice into a feast for a hungry nation.”
Now I’m not saying that her gift of that book was the reason that my daughter is now a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland conducting research on how young children learn mathematics with the goal of supporting and improving the teaching of mathematics – you know, correlation is not causation and all that. I am certain, however, that Marilyn is pleased with the outcome.