He always arrived at our door at 4 p.m. on Tuesday afternoons. Dressed in shirtsleeves, a jacket, and perfectly polished shoes, he seemed an anomaly in a world where casual is confused with sloppy and self-employed is mistaken for lazy. Taking his jacket off and putting it on the back of the dining room chair, he would sit and begin to explore with my children the mysteries of x,y, and z. Nathan King was my kids’ math tutor.
I had hired him because I had been unable to find the time to infuse in my children, zeal for the very thing I had loved as a kid—math.
After Nathan came along, all that changed. After Nathan came along, my children began to share with me little trade secrets he had taught them, like the fact that the least common multiple was the same thing as the lowest common denominator.
Coming home from work, I could hear Nathan’s calm voice asking, “What’s the smallest four-digit even number? One thousand. Is 1,000 divisible by nine? No. What is the next even number that can be divided by nine?” And so on, making me wish I were as patient.
Nathan was a small man, with a neatly trimmed moustache and spots of gray in his dark hair. He was in his 50s, and his perennial smile infected my children with enthusiasm.
Through my kids, I began to learn a little about Nathan’s life. That he lived alone, in the urban oasis of Oakland called Lake Merritt, where terns and loons circle against the backdrop of high rises. That he went rock climbing in South America. That he was weary of the fuzzy math being taught in schools, and was writing his own textbook. That his hobby was number theory.
When we shared a few moments together, he would commiserate about the status of math teaching in schools. “Why do they emphasize estimation so much?” he would wonder. “If you are good at calculation, estimation comes instinctively.”
“You mean every gadget now has a tip calculator, because grown-up adults can’t figure out percentages in their heads?” he exclaimed in horror when I showed him my cell phone one day.
Alas, soon I ceased to see Nathan as a godsend and began to take him for granted. Until one Tuesday, when he failed to turn up.
Then came the phone call, telling us that Nathan had passed away. He had been jogging along Lake Merritt when he had had a massive heart attack. His mother and three sisters were flying out from Iowa. They knew little of his life out West.
A parent organized a memorial service on the shores of Lake Merritt. We stood in a circle of flickering candles, grieving for a man we had scarcely known, but who had touched our lives. With goose bumps on her bare midriff, a Black girl from an inner city school recalled how Nathan had made her realize that calculus had everything to do with the real world. In a choking voice, a white father in a navy blue suit remembered how Nathan had saved his son from failing at an exclusive private school. I recounted that Nathan had shared my nostalgia for the rigorous regime in math I had followed in my native India. Braving chilly winds, teenagers confessed with uncharacteristic sentimentality that Nathan was the best teacher they’d ever had.
In this haphazard coalition of ethnic, religious, racial, and economic groups we call the San Francisco Bay Area, where lives are so fragmented, and friendships, relationships, and even marriages can be so transient, Nathan had created a community. We were a community of parents whom the schools had failed. He had been our greatest common factor. He went door to door, spreading the word that math was fun.
We realized that night that we were only the first of several concentric circles of parents and students whose hearts he had touched over the years.
Nathan represented in many ways quintessential California. He had come to the Bay Area at the age of 18 to find himself. He frowned upon the establishment, and for good reason—he was a free spirit. He worked for himself, doing math, the thing he loved the most.
When I was a young girl in India, my father’s favorite book was James Hilton’s “Goodbye Mr. Chips.” Mr. Chipping, the English schoolmaster who shaped generations of boys at the Brookfield School in the late 1800s, was to me the eternal teacher.
That night on the shores of Lake Merritt, I realized that Nathan was more special than Mr. Chips. He got no laurels from any institution or organization, yet kept faith in his solo mission and pursued it with his heart and soul. Blowing my candle out that night, I whispered, “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” and headed home with my children.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.