This is the first of a three-part series in which I feature Mr. Severin Drix, one of the most loved and revered teachers at IHS. He has taught math at IHS for a remarkable forty three years and has a great deal to share.
James Yoon ’17: What were you like when you were my age?
Severin Drix: I had a pretty not-so-great childhood. But by the time I was in high school, I was pretty happy and had a group of friends. And I was really gung-ho about math. I knew in seventh grade that I wanted to do something with math. Even in fifth grade, I had a teacher who explained why you multiply the numerator and denominator when multiplying fractions by doing a geometric illustration of it and to me, it was so thrilling! Oh my god! I was okay in school, but this was a moment I still remember. I still remember the thrill.
I grew up in New York City for the most part, but I was born in a refugee camp. My parents were Holocaust survivors, born and raised in Poland. They both lost their entire families. My father escaped from the concentration camp. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been alive because when they closed the camp, they murdered everyone in it. One of the most important things I’ve ever done is helping my father write his memoirs. It’s in the library. It’s called Witness to Annihilation by Dr. Samuel Drix.
I absolutely idolized him. He was so strong. Many Holocaust survivors couldn’t talk about [it], but he talked about it, and I think it kept him sane. And he didn’t have a biased viewpoint like his friends, who hated everybody German. I totally understand that, but my father knew that there were people who really risked their lives. I’m only here because a Polish farmer risked his own life and the lives of his wife and small children to harbor my father when he escaped from the camp. Most Poles were very anti-Semitic and said things like, “Well, we’re Catholics so we wouldn’t do such a thing but we’re glad the Germans are doing it for us.” Ukrainians were, as a group, even worse to the Jews than the Poles but a Ukrainian risked his life to save my father’s sister. So [he] kept a balanced view.
After the war, my father and mother met and got married. My father had a wife and a child who were killed during the war before. And then [they] decided to leave Poland, which was illegal, of course, and they made it to the west and ended up in Germany because many countries weren’t taking Jews but the Germans were occupied. My parents were in the American zone in Munich, where I was born. My father couldn’t get a visa because of the illnesses he had contracted in the concentration camp. It took a long time to get through the red tape, so my mother and I moved to America and tried to stay here and become citizens while my father got his visa. But five years was a long time to wait, so we went back to Germany again. When I went back, I had somehow gathered that something horrible went on in the war and so I really resented being in Germany. I was just a kid, about six years old. In the meantime, we were able to get my father to America.
We moved around a lot. I was 15 the first time the number of years I lived caught up to the number of “permanent addresses” I had lived in.
So I was always the new kid, always a loner. Often in a different country. But by the time I was in high school, I found who I was and stayed in one place long enough so that I could develop some good friendships. By the time we settled, were in the Upper West Side, in Washington Heights. That’s what I mostly consider home. That was the fifth place I lived in just within New York, just after the second time back to America. I felt very happy with where I was.
JY: What kind of community did you live in?
SD: Well, it was a diverse community. Honestly, in New York, there’s not much of a sense of “neighborliness.” I lived in an apartment and didn’t know anybody who lived on my floor, let alone the other floors.
By the time I went to the Bronx High School of Science, that’s where all of my good friends were. I think it was because they were very similar to me. I could easily find a group in which I felt very comfortable, both in terms of the interest in mathematics but also in left-wing politics.
JY: Would you say that your political views were shaped by your background?
SD: Actually, my father was a liberal but not a leftist. But one of my close friends from middle school, they were radical socialist and I would argue with him and he kept beating me in the arguments, until I finally decided he was right. [laughs] So my father disagreed with me and this was the first thing separating myself from my father: becoming a socialist.
JY: From that, what did you learn about dealing with disagreement?
SD: Well, there was a lot of debate going on in the high school. Unlike most schools, where people are “blah” about politics, there was an extreme right-wing group there and a left-wing. One of my favorite teachers, my English teacher my senior year, was an intellectual conservative. You know: National Review, Barry Goldwater, and so on. And we respected each other. We disagreed, but I just absolutely adored his teaching. We sparred a little bit but it was a very respectful thing, and that was a very good model to have.
JY: How did you choose to be a teacher here?
SD: Well, first how did I choose to be a teacher. When I went to Cornell, I became a math major. I went there with the full intention pursuing a career in mathematics. And I thought: maybe I was going to teach at a college, but I was thinking of myself as a researcher. And somewhere in college, the other part of life caught up with me. There are emotions, there are relationships. Oh my god, I was a nerd, I was absolutely a nerd in high school. And suddenly, I’m trying to deal with the whole other side of me and finally, I got to the point where I realized, I didn’t really want to have a life of just sitting in an office. I wanted to do something that related to people. And I didn’t know what that was. I was pretty confused by that time.
When I graduated from Cornell, I had no idea what I wanted to do so I decided to take a year off before going to graduate school. And in fact, somewhere through college, I realized that, if I had my choice, I should’ve taken a year after high school or just stopped for a year. But there was a Vietnam War going on, which I was totally opposed to, and there was a draft, and I didn’t want to give up a student deferment and end up in the jungles fighting for something I didn’t believe in. So I kept going but really, my heart was elsewhere.
I got a part-time job at a library processing center and they went out of business in a few months. And I also had another job that was really interesting to me about reading aerial photographs, looking at them with certain glasses that separate your eyes so that you look at images that pop into 3-D (like “magic eye”). And I was all set to get that job but a week before I was going to start, they discovered that their funding had fallen through. Then, finally, I was looking around for what else I was going to do, still not having any longer term plans, and then I saw an ad for a math teacher, and I thought, “Well, you know, actually, I’ve always enjoyed explaining things.” And I certainly loved math. And it would be keeping me in math, while not isolating.
Between my freshman and sophomore years in college and again between my sophomore and junior years, I had a summer job in the Head Start Program in New York City. Little kids, you know. I really enjoyed that so I went and applied for the job, and it was here at IHS, because I was living in Ithaca, having graduated from Cornell. And she looked at my record and said, “You got a great math background, but no teaching courses. If you really want to do this, you need to take some courses and get a teaching degree. And I really had to confront: did I just show up here because it was a job, or did I really want to do this? I decided that I want to do this. I did a one-year MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching) Program, which was a compressed version of getting your teaching degree. And my experience student teaching convinced me that this was a good thing for me to do, and I ended up teaching for three years.
After that, I went to Westchester because I couldn’t find any jobs here. I taught at a middle school just about an hour north of New York City. It was good for me because I was still too much in my head and there’s no better training ground than middle school. Boot-camp. [laughs] I learned to relate to those kids and to handle discipline while not going over the top. I was 16 when I started my freshman year in Cornell, so I was in my early twenties by this time. Then, three years later, I got a job at IHS in the fall of 1973—and I’ve been here ever since.
JY: Would you clarify what’s going on with your retirement?
SD: I have one more year guaranteed and after that, who knows. I didn’t want to stop teaching because I really, really enjoy it. But I felt that I just couldn’t keep the pace up anymore full-time. [I’m] 69 years old now, so this is a few years ago that I was already 65. I could’ve retired a while back, but I like what I’m doing. But I had some health problems in the 2012–2013 school year. For many people, the whole paradigm of retirement that society has, I understand the economics behind it but it’s not good for a lot of people. You go full blast and then boom, nothing. It just makes a lot more sense to be able to phase out. For one thing, the benefit of your experience is passed on to the people you’re working with. Assuming you still want to do what you’re doing and are good at it, it benefits the job—in this case, the students. But there wasn’t any procedure for doing that so I worked out something with the help of Jared Powers, who was principal at the time. I made an agreement with the district. Obviously, for them, it was good for me to retire, because having been here this long, I was at the upper end of the salary range. So the deal was, I was going to retire if I had a post-retirement five-year contract. This is the fourth year. And I’ve been teaching half-time.
JY: What were the sources of support and forces of resistance you encountered in your career?
SD: Well, most of the time, the central administration has not been very good. And we’ve gone through a series of horrible principals. The one we have now is fine and the one before was unbelievable, Jared Powers. But before that, we had one principal after another who either was committed to the job but had poor people skills or had people skills but didn’t do anything, or was bad on both counts. As each one left, we were glad to see that one go and hoping that the next one was better, and it wasn’t until Jared came. That was definitely a problem, and they would come up with bad decisions but the good thing is that my department has always been fantastic.
There have occasionally been teachers who weren’t good either in what they did or as colleagues, but they did not last. The bulk of the department and the whole spirit of the department has been fantastic, and I that’s been great for me and great for the kids. We come up with a pretty unified idea for how we do things, what appropriate things we should do for different levels of courses, developing new courses, fine-tuning what we’ve got. We really are a good team, and that’s been fantastic.
You always have students who are going to be a problem. I’ve had some come back a couple years later and apologize for what they did. But the thing to keep in mind as a teacher is, kids do grow up and even if they’re being obnoxious and difficult, they’re going to be fine for the most part. Part of growing as a teacher is are you better at understanding the material, do you see things you didn’t see before, and in this school, with the kinds of students we have here, I’m often getting insights from students. Seeing what works and doesn’t work with students—oh, if I said it this way, that really turned a light on for a lot of kids; I’m going to revise how I do that next time. But it’s also dealing with kids as people, and you grow from that. A student who is a pain in the neck in class often is an opportunity for learning about how to deal with people, because it’s not like the kids will always be your problem; that’s not their goal in life. And it could always be because of something else that’s going on. They’ve got their own needs and usually, there is a way to find a way to relate.
There have been obstacles but they’ve been good things that really have helped. And I think I’ve gotten better over the years, I honestly think I’m a better teacher now than when I was in my prime. For one thing, starting off as a nerd, I was worried about losing control of a class. So I was pretty strict. I still think of myself as on the strict side but it doesn’t come across that way. The most important thing is to convince the students that you’re on their side. That’s the most important thing. I think I’m more open to watching and listening and hearing the students and having them hear me.