Teacher of the Ear

Jace Lahlum at a water ski club reunion
There’s a popular bumper sticker that says, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” Most of us can recall having a favorite instructor while growing up. Mine was one I had as a high school sophomore in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Despite enjoying math during elementary school and junior high, I was never fond of geometry. Just before starting tenth grade, my parents and I met with a guidance counselor to discuss my schedule. Mom and Dad sided with my resistance to geometry but the counselor insisted I should take that subject.

During the first day of the 1979-1980 school year, I entered a second-floor classroom for my third period geometry class. After the bell rang, in walked 35-year-old Jace Lahlum. To my surprise, this teacher had an energetic personality unlike any I’d seen before. Halfway through that first class, I realized Mr. Lahlum looked and sounded like comedian Steve Martin. If he put on a white suit, dyed his hair and stuck an arrow through his head, Mr, Lahlum would closely resemble “the wild and crazy guy.”

However, Jace Lahlum was no Steve Martin impersonator. His unique sense of humor was expressed in various ways. During the second week of class, Mr. Lahlum walked in a couple times without saying a word and turned on his boombox. His voice was heard saying, “Mr. Lahlum cannot be here today. This is his robot.” Later while going over that day’s assignment, Mr. Lahlum’s voice from the tape said, “The robot will now point to someone and that student will give their answer.”

One of the first things Mr. Lahlum wanted us to know was the Father of Geometry…an ancient Greek mathematician named Euclid. A classmate named Patricia couldn’t remember the exact name when initially called upon and guessed “Escalus.” That became her new nickname.

Another thing Mr. Lahlum taught us was writing out two-column tables called proofs. An answer that often came up in the proofs was CPCTE, which stood for “Corresponding Parts of Congruent Triangles are Equal.” While going over a proof in class, Mr. Lahlum called upon someone to define CPCTE. Even if that student got the answer right, Mr. Lahlum jokingly said, “Nope, it stands for…” and then made up a funny acronym like “Cold Pizza Causes Tongue Erosion” or “Certain People Call That Escalus.”

I still didn’t care for geometry as a subject but looked forward to Mr. Lahlum’s class. Every afternoon upon coming home from school, I described to my mother what my favorite teacher had said and done that morning. Before getting into the daily lesson, Mr. Lahlum usually shared stories that sometimes took up half the class period. He talked about incidents from his childhood, previous classes he taught, and his experiences as a barefoot water skier.

Prior to one water-skiing competition, Jace Lahlum made a bet with a friend that the announcer would correctly pronounce his name (the surname appropriately rhymes with “slalom”). Then he secretly introduced himself at the judge’s stand figuring he would win the bet. Moments later, Mr. Lahlum’s friend walked up to that same judge offering money if he mispronounced Jace’s name. When it came time for his turn around the lake, a voice on the loudspeaker said, “The next contestant will be Jock Laloom!”

Mr. Lahlum often got hungry during our mid-morning class. Not wanting to “offend” us, he grabbed something from his sack lunch, ducked behind the podium, took a bite and then put the rest of his food back in the closet. One morning Mr. Lahlum decided he didn’t want a sandwich brought with him. After giving us our “home fun” assignment (instead of calling it “homework”), Mr. Lahlum turned on the radio and said, “Name that tune and win a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” I correctly identified the song as “Get It Right Next Time” by Gerry Rafferty. Mr. Lahlum then exploited my knowledge of popular music. Many times he stopped in the middle of a lesson, called my name and said, “name that tune” before turning on his radio. I almost always got the song right. 

Students were allowed to play cassette tapes on Jace Lahlum’s boombox after the “home fun” assignment was given. One guy brought in Pink Floyd’s then-current album “The Wall.” I was curious to see how Mr. Lahlum would react to the group’s infamous hit “Another Brick in the Wall.” When he heard the lyrics “Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!”, Mr. Lahlum had a surprised expression on his face and briefly left the classroom.

Although he goofed around a lot, Jace Lahlum had a serious side. During one class he talked about a hair lip joke he used to tell until having a son with a speech impediment. In a school newspaper interview, Mr. Lahlum revealed that during his third year of teaching one of his students committed suicide. That made him realize there were more important things than learning geometry theorems. Mr. Lahlum became the overseer of the Key Club, a student-led organization encouraging leadership through servicing others. A phrase he often said was, “It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.”

The same year I had him for geometry, Jace Lahlum was named Moorhead’s Teacher of the Year. A Saturday article in the local newspaper mentioned that along with a misprint declaring him eligible for Minnesota’s “teacher of the ear” award. Two days later after class, I approached Mr. Lahlum’s desk and said, “Hey, I read you’re up for Minnesota’s Teacher of the Ear.” 

He pointed to one of his ears asking, “Yeah, you like it?” 

I replied, “You got a good chance. You got two of them.”

Jace Lahlum was one of eleven finalists but didn’t win Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year award. More unfortunate, he was absent during the latter part of the school year due to a water skiing accident that required back surgery. One day I bought my teacher a get well card along with a bottle of Mountain Dew (his favorite soft drink). I showed up at the hospital but Mr. Lahlum had already been discharged. I ended up giving him those things on the last day of school. He recovered in time to personally give us our final exam.

Four years before, a classmate taught me this sarcastic poem: “God made bees, bees make honey, we do all the work and the teachers get all the money.” In reality, teachers are vastly underpaid compared to other professions. As one Facebook friend posted, “Teachers don't teach for the income. They teach for the outcome.”

An Internet search revealed Jace Lahlum and his wife now live in Arizona. Since they are in their 70s, I’m assuming he retired from teaching. Although I never used geometry as an adult, I’m still grateful for sitting under an instructor who taught more than facts and figures. He shared important lessons in life while still having fun with his students. Hopefully, Mr. Lahlum knows the Lord so that someday I’ll get to see the “teacher of the ear” again in heaven.

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” - 1 Peter 4:10 (NIV)

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