Lake Highlands High School

Dallas, Texas

Class of 1965 (1964 and 1966)

Geometry Lesson


By Jody Williams

Mrs. Wilma Porter’s sophomore plane geometry class was always the same. As the students wandered in, she would stand beside her desk near the door, a stick of new white chalk poised above her shoulder in her right hand, like a freshly lit cigarette, and she would smile at the students wandering in, either singly or in pairs. But it was not a warm, welcoming smile. Rather, you might think of a gaunt and sinister crone admitting lost children into a dark cottage. There should have been a sign above the lintel, an admonition to surrender all hope. Most of the students entering would avert their gaze from Mrs. Porter’s face, toward the ground, or pretend to be concerned with extricating the day’s dutifully completed homework in a show of compliance. A few would utter a subdued Good morning or Hello, Mrs. Porter, and she would acknowledge their greeting with a nod, fondling the small clock secured by a gold chain about the high collar of her blouse. The students went directly, vector-like, to their seats, assigned in strict alphabetical order, inviolable except when someone acted up, which might consist merely of talking to a neighbor. Then, that person would have to sit in the corner desk by the door, where Mrs. Porter could keep an eye on him until the bell rang at the end of class, and even then the transgressor would have to remain seated until everyone else had left.

But people hardly ever chatted--much less, cheated--during Mrs. Porter’s class since, if you were caught, you were certain to be made an example of, pinned down like a laboratory specimen. You couldn’t take advantage of her the way you could the friendlier teachers and the poor substitutes who seldom returned.

When the bell rang at 1:05, Mrs. Porter closed the door behind Joe Bob Crandall, always the last to enter, slowing to a walk and breathing deeply as he made a sharp turn into the room, just in time to avoid getting a pink tardy slip. Sorry, Miz P, he would sometimes announce, varying his excuse when in fact he had been kissing and nuzzling Karen Love behind the cafeteria till the last split second. No matter. His tardiness was inconsequential, for not only did Mrs. Porter tolerate his testing the boundaries of her authority, she rather liked him for his boyish incorrigibility. He was the only student allowed any degree of levity. Her indulgence of him seemed a way of proving in her the existence of a measured sense of humor. You couldn’t really punish this shamelessly demonstrative blithe spirit, who thrived on publicity. Even the coaches who administered licks with their fraternity paddleboards admired his untamed nature, and teachers were discouraged from sending him to the office, where his obtrusive, jocular presence disrupted the stolid atmosphere promoted by Mr. Ayres, the school principal. And so Mrs. Porter admitted this initial moment of comic relief in her otherwise Spartan routine.

Thank you for coming, Joe Bob, she said, and within the minute took attendance by scanning the rows for unoccupied seats in the efficiently arranged classroom.

Everyone get out your homework and let’s go over the answers together. We’ll begin with Miss Allen. Sandy, what is the relationship between angles a and c?

Opposite and equal angles created by two intersecting lines?

I’ll accept that---Mr. Anderson, would you give us your answer to #2?

Angle A equals 135 degrees?

Very good. Jennifer Banks, would you come forward to the board and demonstrate for the class how you arrived at your answer to problem number three?

In this manner, Mrs. Porter and the class proceeded dryly through the assignment with only one disruption as Mrs. Porter paused abruptly to reprimand Sherryl Graham for jangling her bracelets. Probably no one would have noticed had the teacher not drawn their attention to the light tinkling, a symphonic intrusion to Mrs. Porter’s highly attuned perception. She paused abruptly in mid-sentence.

Do you mind, Miss Graham? she asked, her voice cracking.

I’m sorry, Mrs. Porter, said Sherryl, smiling forlornly and clamping a hand over the offending circles, hoping against hope that her abject apology would suffice to expiate her offense. But Mrs. Porter, for some reason checking her clock, simply stared at Sherryl Graham, whom she resented for her bright jewelry and short skirts, especially on Fridays, Big Game days when there would be a pep rally during homeroom period. As a cheerleader, she was allowed to wear to afternoon class the revealing, pleated uniform in red and white with the school logo emblazoned across her chest.

May we continue, with your permission? I know you consider your football game to be more important than plane geometry. Is that right, Sherryl Graham? Do you consider football games more important than plane geometry?

No, ma’am.

Are you sure? Are you aware that without plane geometry there would be no football?

No, ma’am---I mean, yes, ma’am.

Well, then, let’s proceed. She glanced down at her clock. Gerald Martin, I believe you have problem #13. What theorem do we have here?

The class dragged on. Meanwhile in the last row Steven Welles had calculated precisely where his turn would fall--which problem would be his to answer. Steven seldom bothered doing the homework, only when necessary, relying on his wits to get by. He was clever, well liked, and not known as a troublemaker, therefore was unlikely to arouse teacher suspicion. Besides, Mrs. Porter, with her rigid routines, was as predictable as the simple equations the class was assigned at such repetitious length. If Mrs. Porter were taking up homework, he would find out from his friend Bill, who was in second period geometry, at change of classes and then would hurriedly scratch out the assignment during history or lunch. He performed well on tests, and as for answering aloud in class, he would periodically volunteer, raising his hand when Mrs. Porter posed a question to the class in general, thus deterring the possibility of getting called on by surprise when he might not know the answer or when he was secretly reading a philosophy book behind the geometry text propped up nearly perpendicular on the desk before him.

On this day, Steven was reading The Stranger as Mrs. Porter’s fourth period geometry class proceeded inexorably through the pedestrian exercises. Occasionally, he would turn and gaze wistfully at the empty tennis courts visible just beyond the faculty parking lot, projecting his thoughts to the day’s end when he could be stroking tennis balls, moving rhythmically about the court surface. Mrs. Porter probably thought tennis, like football, was a matter of geometry--rectangles, arcs, and angles. How could she, a stiff, cranky old biddy, even begin to understand the poetry and grace of athletic movement on the court? Anybody could see the simple, geometric structure--the obvious fact that the court consisted of an arrangement of rectangles . But that was simply where you played the game, not how. Even the rules did not exactly determine the game but rather allowed the game, in all its complexity, to occur or take place. What was that from Frost? There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed---though there is no fixed line between wrong and right./ What comes over a man, is it soul or mind---that to no limits and bounds he can stay confined? Something like that.

Or so he was musing when John Wagner, at the desk just in front of his, failed to answer his question.


I believe you have the answer to problem #27. If arc B describes an angle of 30 degrees, then the supplement of angle ABD must be what?

Uh, 60 degrees, he guessed.

No---.Why do you say that?

I don’t know--it seems like a nice, round figure.

There was a titter of laughter.

Is that your idea of an attempt at humor, Mr. Welles?

He shrugged.

Steven Welles, did you prepare your lesson?

No, ma’am.

And why not?

I didn’t think it was necessary.

You didn’t consider it necessary? Mr. Welles, I’m afraid you deeply misunderstand what is necessary in the real world. I’m afraid that you, like Miss Graham over there in the second row, fail to appreciate the ubiquity of geometric figures. Are you familiar with the term ’ubiquity’ Mr. Welles?

Of course.

It means everywhere---it means geometry is everywhere.

What do you want to be, Mr. Welles? What do you want to be in your life?

Steven squirmed slightly in his seat, discomfited by Mrs. Porter’s question and having no answer. His next goal was to achieve dismissal from this dreary classroom, to escape this ordeal, this trial, for the pleasurable routine of tennis on a court of play under a bright blue sky. He was interested in lots of things and the world was full of possibilities. Why was it even necessary to decide the course of one’s life, given only the circumscribed experience of growing up in a white, middle class suburb among like-minded people? For the present, he felt no urgency about a career. Rather, it made sense to find your way as you learned about the world. At some point in this bright, wide-open future he would see clearly and commit to a certain path or else he would be recognized, chosen, by some profession for which he was especially suited. Life, for the foreseeable future at least, should be improvised--like a good jazz number--not determined and played by rote.

He could not answer Mrs. Porter’s question--not seriously, not now. No matter what he said, Mrs. Porter would make a case for the uses of geometry in the larger world, And so he muttered a response, half to himself.

A cowboy.

Excuse me---I couldn’t hear you.

A cowboy---.I want to be a cowboy when I grow up.

Two or three students snickered, but most sat stunned, the class holding its collective breath, anticipating.

Mrs. Porter inhaled deeply, sucked in her cheeks, and twisted her mouth into a tight pucker. She continued to fondle her timepiece as she moved in and stood above the students at the end of the alphabet. Before she could respond, the bell sounded harshly, ending the period, and people shuffled together their books and stirred to leave. Yet no one dared stand without Mrs. Porter’s explicit permission--not even Joe Bob Crandall. Besides, they were all torn between a wish to escape and curiosity about the outcome of the current confrontation between teacher and student.

Wilma Porter waited for the din to subside before speaking.

The class is dismissed--you are all free to go, she proclaimed.

The students sprang loose from their desks to add their number to the ebb and flow of future citizens in the hallway.

---except for you, Mr. Welles. I believe you still owe me an answer.

For a few moments, Steven tapped out a nervous rhythm on the desktop with the eraser end of his pencil as the roomful of students rumbled off to their next classes. Alone in the vacant space that remained, without looking up, he felt himself transfixed and encompassed by the woman’s stern blue eyes. Now, having shut the thick, ponderous geometry text, the slender Camus hidden within, he awaited the next question from Mrs. Wilma Porter.