Exchange student recalls lesson learned in GHS math class

By Marlys Good

In August 1979, Greybull High School’s enrollment was enhanced by the addition of a pretty young exchange student, Joanna Sirén, from Finland.

Thirty-eight years later, the Greybull Standard received a timeless email from Sirén with a heart-felt thank you to her Greybull teachers — and a special thank you to math/IT teacher Bob Leach, who retired this summer.

Sirén explained that several decades ago she prepared a report to her alma mater, Seinajoki University of Applied Sciences. Her subject? The personal learning methods she had experienced.

“One of the most effective I have ever faced – with life-long consequences – was the eligibility list, also known today in some places as the Loyola List, which Mr. Leach had put me on just before the basketball regionals. Was it, in Sheridan?”

When she enrolled in GHS, Sirén could choose whatever classes she liked best, with the exception of U.S. History, which was taught by Tom Harrington, and was mandatory.

In addition she signed up to take Environmental Problems, also taught by Harrington, “partly because I was already into environmental issues, partly due to Mr. Harrington himself. I enjoyed enormously his classes whatever he was teaching – colorful Harrington exchanging argumentation with a bunch of colorful cowboys, Warren Anders, Brent Hibbert and Bruce Dooley and football players like Bob Hallcroft and Gary Vorhies. Hilarious! Shorthand (very exotic and enjoyed Mr. Stockhouse’s style of teaching, too), creative writing, art and for one hour every day a voluntary cleaning job of the wrestling room floor (Mr. Harrington was the coach for wresters), and lastly, math!”

Sirén explained that she hadn’t been very good in her math classes in Finland and thought she could strengthen her skills during this “extra” year.

“Only it didn’t work out that way in the beginning. Volleyball season came (and went), and along came basketball season,” and one early morning, out came the eligibility list and there was Siren’s name, prominently displayed.

“Hooyah. I could not understand what there was to take so seriously in an exchange student’s studies, which could not formally be added to my courses in Finland. After all, it was the English language I had come to U.S. to strengthen and to inhale the American culture. Not to hyperventilate with tangents and cosines.

“But going ballistic didn’t help me at all. Parents of the host-family and Mr. Leach remained strong as a stonewall: No basketball, but extra math. And here’s the lesson I learned and am going to include to the report I am working on:

“We believe in the philosophy that participation in extra-curricular performances, corporate work study events, college visits, sporting events, school ambassador events and special off-campus trips is a privilege, not a right. This privilege is granted to students who uphold the ideals of leadership, are a community role model, display good citizenship, abide by the rules and regulations of the school community, commit themselves to academic success.

“Students who wish to participate in extra-curricular activities and off-campus events must be on the Loyala List, or have been approved to participate by a school administrator.”

Sirén wrote, “But to my own great surprise I also learned math, and even more surprising, started to enjoy it. Somehow the style Mr. Leach was using in his teaching got my learning process going. When I came back from U.S. – crying all the way from Cody to Denver, I announced to my tutor teacher, who also happened to be the math teacher, who was well aware of my poor skills in math, that I was going to include math as a mandatory subject to the graduation test. She objected. She honestly didn’t think I would make it.”

Sirén explained that in the Finnish high school graduation system a student has to prove through a graduation test that he/she has learned the most during her three years of high school (no freshmen). In the 1980s those mandatory tests for Sirén were: native tongue (Finnish), national language (Swedish) and a foreign language (English). A student could also choose to take another subject, either mathematics, basic or advanced, or “a bunch which could include questions in physics, chemistry, biology, geography, history psychology, philosophy and religion.

To prepare for the test Sirén took a private preparation course in mathematics (two in a row) under another gifted teacher Timo Hentunen. She did her homework dutifully for two months and was ready for the test.

“Thanks to Mr Hentunen and Mr. Leach, I passed the math test with cum laude approbatur. And thanks to the year in U.S. and in GHS, my English test went through with laudatur.”

So, I really hope this notification reaches Mr. Leach. Thank you. Your math class definitely changed my life.

In 2007, years after taking and passing the mandatory tests, “when I was studying again, I had a math teacher who said that not every teacher is a success with every student – that there are not only different styles of learning, but also different styles of teaching, ‘math languages,’ which differ from each other.”

When Sireñ heard this statement she was 46 years old. “I understood that maybe I would have not been such a maverick in math class during my early years, if there had been a wider choice of math teachers. How lucky I landed in the classes of Misters Leach and Hentunen.”

Leach was amazed that a student from his earliest teaching years (he came to Greybull in 1973) could remember him after 39 years. It took him a few moments to put a face to the name, but Siréns mentioning “tangents” and “cosines” caught his attention and took him back to Algebra II or Trigonometry.

He did recall that the eligibility list (or ineligibility list) was relatively new, not only to Sirén, but to the school system, and GHS students. He said it was one of the tools used to get the students‘ attention and a way to get them to accept responsibility for their actions (or perhaps for their inaction).

To be placed on that dreaded list, and the consequences, for students was “like taking a medicine. It might taste bad, but you find out it makes you (feel) better.”

As for being remembered for that list after 39 years, Leach said it “was very gratifying to find that a student saw the value in it years later.”

The gratitude and thanks expressed, knowing you made a difference, Leach said, “are what calls you to be a teacher in the first place.”