The Secret of Fire

Mr. Silberman, my seventh grade math teacher, took me aside one day and asked, “What do we need to do to light a fire under you, Robert?” It was a good question, one that I have been trying to answer ever since. The irony is that I was fond of algebra and could be quite quadratic about it. I just didn’t take it seriously.

Years later, a department chair asked me roughly the same thing. Since department chairs are infinitely more sinister than math teachers, the question contained an undertone of threat and the chair’s thinly-veiled desire to put as much distance between her and me as possible. I didn’t care. I still walked around as if I owned the place.

To be sure, there are things to be taken seriously: espresso, gin, children, God. And there are rules to follow such as never wear a clip-on bow tie. But, beyond these and a couple of other pointers from Aristotle (be a mensch) and Confucius (be kind to six-foot orphans), that’s it. The rest you can forget. So, I have.

True to my Jesuit training, I like to think of this as indifference. It’s not that I don’t care. I am indifferent, which is not the same thing. Indifference is a sort of engaged detachment, and I have arrived at its door by passing through the smoldering Vale of Tears.

I am more indifferent now than I have ever been. Some say it comes with age. Others say it’s not enough iron. Or magnesium, iodine, B complex vitamins, omega-three fatty acids, etc. I don’t think it’s any of these. I started taking multivitamins and the only change has been the color of my urine. I share that with you, only because it’s the color of those neon yellow sneakers some people wear. You can spot them four blocks away, which reminds me of a Monty Python skit about bat piss.

I have developed a theory about indifference, or my version of it. I believe I am serious about quite a few things. In fact, I approach most things–projects, work, events, even furniture–seriously. It’s people I don’t take seriously. I don’t take them seriously, because there are very few serious ones out there. By serious, I don’t mean humorless or dour, which rhymes with sour. I mean people who don’t take themselves seriously. Either that, or they take themselves too seriously.

These are people who are never there in front of you when they’re there in front of you. Who have one thing on their mind and another on their tongue. Who take without giving. Who critique without being asked. Who know everything and like to tell you so. Who always play home games and never travel out to meet you, literally or emotionally.

Don’t get me wrong. I have said too many outrageous things and made too many mistakes during my lifetime to cast stones. But I understand the difference between being wrong and trying to be right. I am more comfortable with people who struggle to be right and admit their imperfections with grace and humor. I like to think of myself as one of them. Minus the grace and humor.

The other day a student apologized to me for the poor quality of her work. “I don’t want to disappoint you,” she said. She is a good student, just bad at managing her time. So we worked out a solution to her problem. Then I told her I wasn’t disappointed at all and that she didn’t need to gain my favor. She already had it.

I thought of Mr. Silberman. He was a kind man, a caring man. He took his work seriously enough to wear a jacket and tie to class. I felt bad about disappointing him. The truth is I didn’t think I could ever gain his favor. I didn’t realize I probably had it all along. That’s the secret of fire.

You want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: I told an administrator this week that she runs a tight ship. “It’s a sinking ship but a tight one.” I’m making friends all over the place.


  1. I hadn’t seen this short story- till now— don’t know why- however, I really liked it– as a former JHS classmate of yours…I must say Mr. Silberman was some “character”… stern and funny at the same time– his methods of teaching and discipline were comical…and we will never forget the ‘ol favorite… ” off to Siberia! ” ( when he gave “time outs” way way in the back of the cafeteria)- he was so funny… but, I don’t think he was having as much fun as we were…we just used to watch him in action and goof on him… You…. were especially funny in that class too– taking off your shoe, and talking into it, like “Maxwell Smart ” the TV secret agent.. and driving the teacher nuts !! Definitely… these were the good ‘ol days !….PS…I am so glad that you are enjoying teaching… and now you know how special your students become to you—as you were to Silberman…even if he had a strange way of showing it….boy , our class was great!…we sure had fun back them…if only we could do it all again…JHS 51 years… the best… Sincerely, Mary Ann

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