When I was in my 40s, I called my high school geometry teacher, John Detrick, and invited him to lunch. 

There we were, eating lunch, and John asked me why I’d invited him.

As a teacher, John often asked, “Why?” He was a thinking student’s teacher. Teenagers can easily fall into the ruts of high school routine, believing that people are little more than their official roles: teachers are nothing more than teachers; students, students; custodians, custodians. John blurred the lines, encouraging us to see people as more complex individuals, by asking, “Why?”

So John asked, “Why did you invite me to lunch?”

I confessed, “Because you were one of my favorite teachers.”

“Thank you. That’s very nice of you,” John said. “I’m sorry I didn’t teach you something more important.”

“What?” I sputtered. “Geometry is a very important subject. I love geometry. I think about it all the time, like when I enjoy sculpture or drive past a bridge. And I am an amateur carpenter. I use geometry in the building of bookshelves.”

John stopped me. “Geometry is useful. But it’s not in the top ten.”

“What’s in the top ten?” I asked.

The Most Important Subjects
“Oh, I don’t know,” said John. Then he started listing the possibilities:

1. “How to be a good neighbor. That’s clearly what the world most needs these days. Not just over the fence, but across global borders. That has to be taught. In many ways, it’s not any more complicated than learning how to be a good neighbor. And it’s a lot more important than geometry.”

2. “How to be a good spouse.”

3. “How to be a good parent.”

4. “How to be a good friend.”

5. “How to vote. Our freedoms are based on our ability to vote.”

6. “How to read.”

7. “How to calculate. Some math is necessary, so you can pay for your cheeseburger. But geometry isn’t necessary for that.”

8. “How to cut the grass. Taking care of your stuff.”

9. “How to fry an egg. Nutrition in general.”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “When in your career did you realize this?”

“In my tenth year of teaching,” he said.

“And when did you teach me?” I asked.

“In my twelfth.” John Detrick was one of my best teachers and it was two years after he’d given up on his subject.