The Best Teacher I Ever Had

07/06/2008 02:03 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

He stood 6'6", perhaps, and his protruding stomach seemed nearly as wide as his legs were long. His scraggly, unkempt beard reached nearly that far, though his t-shirt rarely did. Somewhere beneath the tip of the beard and the tip of the shirt you could usually see his gut sticking out. A toothy half-smile almost always peered out from behind the beard. Steve Sigur looked like Paul Bunyan gone native, and he lovingly towered over 29 years of high school math classes before his passing yesterday from brain cancer, at the age of 62.

It was high school, and, poor nerd, I was suffering through everything that high school is -- raging hormones, catastropic depression, extracurricular catatonia, social neurosis, academic pressure, peer pressure, and the impossibility of just trying to wake up in the morning. He had taught at my school since it was three years old, and was as much of an institution as the bricks. Paideia School (founded 1971), once a longhaired experiment, was now a respected private prep school in the mold of so many others in Atlanta, training the children of professors (like me), doctors, lawyers, and professionals to get into a good college. Steve didn't care: he wanted us to love learning. Dropping aphorisms like a zen master and looking like ZZ Top, for 50 minutes a day, he succeeded.

His classroom reflected his appearance: messy, computers everywhere, geometry projects ("three-dimensional shadows of four-dimensional objects," he explained happily) hanging from the ceiling, one whiteboard for teaching and one adjacent for math meet schedules, favorite quotes, and other things; in his closet was a MIDI keyboard, behind his desk a broken sitar. He was unselfconsciously slovenly, had a childlike passion for math, and an overwhelming desire to share his enthusiasm with everyone who came into his class. His percussive laugh masked the social awkwardness of a man who loved math for a living, who lived alone, whose entire life was teaching. Somehow he had an inexplicable charisma.

For my other classes, I bought $80 textbooks and was frequently reminded what would be on the AP exam. In Steve's class, I received handout copies from century-old Russian books he'd bought at a book sale, because he said they taught logarithms better before the fall of the tsar. My other classes had an arc, a readily apparent lesson plan; in Steve's class, we'd be unleashed for days at a time onto his computers, for us to mess around and "teach ourselves" by playing with synesthetic picture and sound math utilities like Geometer's Sketchpad, Mathematica, and Bryce. If we had fun, we'd teach ourselves to learn, he said.

Every Monday morning there was a school assembly in which students and teachers would give the announcements for the week, concerts, plays, games, meetings, teams. I got up and made jokes about chess club. A nice 40-minute break from class. It often went a little longer at the end, if a group of students came out onto the stage from the wings and began to play. When they did, the guitars and vocalists often changed, but the rhythm section was usually constant. On drums was a literature teacher, John Capute, who kept a kit in his classroom and let students try it out. On bass was Steve Sigur, a foot taller than everyone else, motionless and smiling.

We always heard stories that he spent the summers hiking alone in the Pacific Northwest or Canada. You could read the serenity on his face. When he was much younger, he'd been an athlete -- his height still bore witness to his basketball youth -- but at this point in his life he was clearly more of a mountain man. He quoted the Tao Te Ching and Devo, and at some point I began to suspect that he was one of the few people I've ever met who truly knew the secret to his own happiness. He attracted the weirdos, math geeks, and nerds, of course, because he was one of them. He was the advisor to the math team, and they met in his room. But even the kids too popular to be seen in his classroom after hours enjoyed the time they spent there -- and, if only for those moments, enjoyed math.

He taught the accelerated track and remedial track, the smart kids and the dumb kids, the kids who fit in and the kids who didn't, and I'm still not sure which one I was. But we all loved him. Everyone did.

He was the best teacher I ever had. I'll miss him.