It was the first day of my senior year, a year where I was supposed to be one of the “leading” class of Sayville High School, and a day where I was supposed to do nothing except bask in my seniorness. After all, first days of school are supposed to be a wash: you get your locker combination, meet a few teachers, pick up some textbooks, probably attend a short assembly, and then go home with nothing to do.
Except that Mr. Prescia had another idea.
“Okay, you guys ready to go?” he asked after the second period bell rang and then asked us to take out that summer’s assignment. I’m not sure if I imagined this or it really happened, but I could have sworn that there was a collective groan from some people in the class and I know that I wasn’t the only person wondering if he was serious.
It turns out, he was. Mr. Prescia had been our pre-calculus teacher the previous year and took over the AP calculus classes for what I think was the very first time in his career. Back in June, he had issued textbooks and assigned a laundry list of problems that he expected us to have ready for the first day of school in September. Now, being the type of student who never missed a summer assignment (and also being the type of student whose parents made sure he never missed a summer assignment), I dutifully completed my work and was ready, but I definitely didn’t think that he was going to launch right into problems the very first day of classes. But since he didn’t need to introduce himself, it made total sense.
Not only that, the man was pumped to teach AP calculus. Mr. Prescia clearly was a math guy. The previous year, he’d shared a problem that he and a super-genius kid from an older class had worked on together (and I am not entirely sure if this was true or not, but I swear there was something about mathematically proving or disproving the existence of God), in addition to some great stories about his high school years, including the time he’d been shot. He had stories about how him and his brother came up with a card-counting system for blackjack in Vegas and did so well that they were asked, upon leaving the casino, to never come back to that casino again. He once revealed his sure-thing system for betting on horses at the different racetracks in the New York metropolitan area. He worked in logarithms and theorems as if they were a medium, and while we didn’t always share his enthusiasm, he didn’t let us forget that we had signed up for AP calc, he was going to teach us AP calc, and we were going to work.
And work we did. Mr. Prescia’s class was balls-to-the wall drill-and-kill. He would lecture on a principle of calculus, assign problems out of the book, and create tests where you had no choice but to be thorough on working out everything. When we did well on those tests, he was even more pumped and he’d take things to the next level, making the concepts more complicated in his breakneck-paced manner that dared us to keep up; when we did badly, he would lay into us. He once read our class the riot act for a good half of a class period and was so upset that two beads of spit had collected at the corners of his mouth–he was frothing at the mouth, if you will–not because he thought we were stupid or that he hated us, but because he was disappointed in us. He was, in a way, our coach.
I was one of his most inconsistent “players.” Every other one of my tests was good–I’d get a C on one test and an A on the next, which made me a B student but not a solid B student (in fact, “inconsistent test scores” was a constant comment on my progress reports and report cards). One particular test, he posted the highest point total on the board (he used some total points formula that to this day I can’t figure out, but I know that the highest one was essentially the “A” of the class and everything was curved accordingly) and when he came around to my desk, he said, “You came out of left field on this one” and revealed that I had that posted highest points total. It was as much of a “holy crap” moment for me as it seemed to be for him and I remember doing my best to repeat that performance for the rest of the year, even though I never did and remained inconsistent.
His methods, his style … they were, as I recall, all things that your average PD speaker would cringe at. There was never a single manipulative, never a single project, and we never touched a piece of technology. But in four years of high school, I rarely worked as hard to keep up with him and I never felt as wiped as when I walked out of the AP calculus exam in May, I never felt more wiped (and kinda regret not going out for Chinese with him but I did have another AP exam the next day and wanted to get in one last review session). To this day, the 3 that I scored on that exam is something I wear as a badge of honor.
Earlier this evening, I found out via Facebook that Mr. Prescia has passed away. So, I tip my hat to him. Rest in peace and thank you.