LETTER: Teacher’s invitation to an active intelligence

Ron Sweeny dominated the space with his person, not his will

Ron Sweeney was my Grade 11 math teacher at Abby Senior in 1980-81, when he must have been 55 years old, not far from where I am now. His hair was already white, as I remember, and had a curmudgeonly, gruff, world-weary persona I imagine is common to long-time, retirement-ready teachers.

I had his class in the last room on the left, at the east end of the long hallway that stretched across the front of the school. It’s parking space now, since the old school was demolished. He never bothered himself, for example, with learning your name. You were assigned a dual-digit number based on which desk you sat in, arranged in a grid pattern.

First and front rows were zeros, so that the unfortunate person to choose front row, left side, was designated “0,0”, which garnered a round of derisive laughter that first day. I was “0,5”, by the entrance. It was a stratagem to teach you your ephemerality and insignificance. The desks were more substantive than those who occupied them for an hour. And you could be presumed an idiot until you proved yourself otherwise. (I didn’t, earning a C+.) And Math 11 was much simpler then than it is now, mostly algebra as I remember.

But for all this, Sweeney was endearing, in a grandfatherly way, and I don’t remember him having any outsized behavioral problems or insurrections. He dominated the space with his person, not his will. He could be roused to ridicule, not wrath, that rebounded on the student who revealed to his peers his own foolishness.

The implicit invitation Sweeney’s teaching made was to an active intelligence and application to task that bespoke manhood (okay, adulthood), to a generation still enamored with its own adolescence. When he ran for city council he had a large constituency of former students to recognize his name on the ballot. I remember him saying he never spent a penny on his political campaigns. In fact, he’d been paid for them, years before, as he earned his living, in classrooms like the one I knew, in a school that’s just a memory.

Braden Kool