ProfTalk: George Leiter on world travels, rock stardom, math
Features

ProfTalk: George Leiter on world travels, rock stardom, math

Professor George Leiter performs onstage with Earth, Wind and Fire. In addition to teaching math, Leiter plays rock music every week.  (Photo courtesy of Leiter.)
Professor George Leiter performs onstage with Earth, Wind and Fire. In addition to teaching math, Leiter plays rock music every week. (Photo courtesy of Leiter.)

Talk a bit about your background. You are a Macalester grad, correct?

Yes. I will try to give you the more entertaining things. I grew up in Kansas, mostly around Kansas City. I left high school when I was 15, came here (Macalester) when I was 16. So that’s kind of interesting: I was very young when I came here. I was actually looking at Dartmouth, and I just found Macalester. I have a long, involved story about how I was going to go to Carleton—the criteria I used to select my college was ridiculous. I didn’t go to Carleton because the guy who showed me around campus had tape on his glasses right there [touching the bridge of his glasses] and the admissions guy at Dartmouth was wearing white socks. (laughs) I mean, it was just completely ridiculous why I had chosen to come here.

What were you involved with during your time here?

When I was here I had a great time. I was very involved. I was an RA, I was a dorm president, I was on Program Board, I ran for President. If you look back in The Mac Weekly for spring of ’76, I think there is a picture of me with long hair running for president. I majored in Math and Chemistry. And I was profoundly influenced by Professor Konhauser in the math department. I came thinking I was going to be chemistry and probably pre-med. And I had a great experience in the chemistry department, but Dr. Konhauser really took an interest in me and helped me. I mean, I really think I knew I was interested in teaching and education from the time I was 12, but he really helped. He was the person who started the problem of the week and was just a real inspiration to me.

What about post-grad?

I got hired at St. Paul Academy, the private school about six blocks away, the day after I graduated from college. With no interview, no resume, somebody walked by and saw me tutoring someone and said, “Do you want to work here?” And I had been there ever since. I took a couple years off to teach in the Netherlands and took a sabbatical year to teach in a rural school in Jamaica. But other than that, I have been all of six blocks away.

Fun fact: post grad I lived in a house with a bunch of other Macalester graduates, and we formed a really bad punk rock band and became very popular as sort of a comic relief. We warmed up some pretty well known bands, The Replacements and things like that. But we were just horrible. (Laughs) I think WMCN might have a copy of our single.

What was the name of your band?

The Tuff Bunnies.

Weren’t you in a movie, too?

Oh, yeah. I was the bailiff in a movie called “Justice.” I’m on IMDB! The movie was written and funded by a small law firm in Minneapolis that specialized in civil rights litigation. Apparently the four lawyers in the firm got a large settlement and decided making a movie would a nice break from the law business. One of the lawyers wrote the screenplay; they all served as producers. They hired a few professional Hollywood actors and used local “talent” for the rest of the cast. As the bailiff I’m on screen for about three seconds. I actually can’t believe I got a credit, but apparently being the former math teacher of one of the producers gets you on a leg up in the movie biz. And the funny thing about me getting to be the bailiff was that I was just supposed to be a juror, but when the actor showed up for the bailiff’s role, he was too large to fit into the uniform! We filmed at the courthouse in St. Paul. Being dressed in a cop’s uniform (complete with phony gun) at the courthouse was a blast. Everybody thought I was a real cop and asked me all kinds of questions. I was tempted to go out and hassle random passersby, but thought better of it. There’s my movie career in a nutshell.

Where did you go to grad school?

I did some part-time grad school work at the U of M, and then I went to Harvard and got my Masters in Education in ’89. And then I came back here for a couple of years, and then it was ’93-’95 when I was in the Netherlands. And then 1999-2000 was when I was in Jamaica. And now I’m here. And that was really kind. I got an email from Macalester last summer asking if I was interested in being a visiting professor, and it’s been exciting. And now I have just taken a job in Madagascar for next year, so I will be moving there.

What did you do in the Netherlands?

I taught at the American school of the Hague. I taught high school math.

Different styles of teaching there?

I’d say the only thing is that the students and parents are much more used to travel. If I tried to take some kids to downtown Minneapolis from St. Paul Academy, their parents would be all worried about them. And there we took kids and flew them to London and said, “Come back in eight hours, we’ll be at the train station!” Students there just grow up that way.

What did you do in Jamaica?

Since 1993, I have been taking computers to Jamaican schools. I run a little nonprofit (Little World Schoolhouse). We actually just sent 30 laptop computers down there, which is the first time we have done that in a little while. I was very active in the ’90s when companies were turning over computers, and I would go set them up at some schools down there with some friends of mine. And that got me interested in spending some more time down there. So, I went to teach at a school called York Castle High School, up in a rural area called Brownstown. I set up a computer lab for them and was working in the computer lab with the computer teacher. Then they had a math teacher who got sick, so I did part of the year teaching a math class. I lived in a house with a couple of Jamaican guys and it was a great experience. I still love the place and I still am involved going down there.

What are you going to do in Madagascar?

I am going to be teaching at the American school of Antananarivo. My significant other is there already teaching fourth grade. So I went there and visited over the break, and it’s a spectacular place, so I am really looking forward to it. At this point we are thinking we’ll be there a couple of years, but we’ll see. It’s a little school, but it’s charming and it’s growing and they need math and science teachers, and it’s in Madagascar! (laughs)

What has it been like coming back to Macalester?

The other math professors are so welcoming, and entertaining and engaging. They are just fun people. Some of the meetings are laugh-out-loud funny. I felt very fortunate that way. It’s funny that there are still professors here from when I was here. I am right next door to Dr. Roberts who I had as a professor, and Martin Gunderson is here. I think I was in his very first class he ever taught here. And then the students, I think it’s hard to compare. In many ways they are the same. I see the students here now maybe being a little more affected by the financial issues in the world and being a little more concerned. They just can’t frolic the way people were frolicking when I was going to college. (laughs) People were no longer worried about the draft and times were good and a lot of people were maybe having a little too much fun at Macalester. (laughs) I’m still impressed by Macalester’s commitment to internationalism and social causes; I’m heartened. I want to write a little piece for the alumni magazine to say, “It’s still the place you know and love.”

Did Mac influence your life path?

I would say very much so. I think I was incredibly happy at Mac because I thrived academically, which I had not in high school, and was positively influenced by the ethos here, the concern for world issues and social justice. I think I really developed in that direction a long way.

Favorite thing about teaching?

It’s two fold. I really do enjoy mathematics. I think that’s where Dr. Konhauser influenced me. Instead of being the Peanuts “wah wah wah” voice at the board, I would want somebody to think, “Oh wow, that’s pretty cool!

It’s like doing puzzles. People do puzzles for fun; I hope people enjoy math in the same way. But I also enjoy what I would call the pastoral side. Especially when you are working with junior high-aged kids, to shepherd them through those rough waters and then see them on the other end develop into self-contained human beings that are interested in doing good in the world.

Favorite part of math?

Problem solving. Whenever I am teaching I try to find problems that will really engage people. It all started with the problem of the week here. That kind of puzzle problem is what really motivates me.

Plans for the future?

I am looking forward to the teaching adventure ahead. But I still want to hit the big time in the world of rock and roll. (laughs) I still play every week. As a fun fact, Willie Gambucci, who was a theater major and graduated from Mac last spring, I taught him in high school and played in his high school band. We put out a CD, you can listen to it on Spotify. (laughs) I still really enjoy music. I know it will never go anywhere. But it’s keeping me occupied. I actually play on Friday nights with some people that are Mac grads. Which is the nice thing about Macalester being in the Twin Cities. I think there’s a funny name like the “one mile club” for people who never go too far. But I still socialize and see a lot of my Macalester classmates.

Any other things you want to throw out to the community?

I sang with Earth, Wind and Fire! (laughs) We (Leiter and partner) were at a charity auction and someone else paid thousands of dollars to sing with Earth, Wind and Fire, and we were saying to them, “Oh that’s so cool that you did that.” And then they said to us, “We don’t want to do it, we want to watch you do it.” And we went, “Okay, we will!” So we got to get up and sing with Earth, Wind and Fire at the convention center last May.

Another random thing is that Steven Levitt, the author of Freakonomics, is a former student of mine, and we are pretty close. Actually, if you go to the Freakonomics podcasts, I did an interview at the Fitzgerald Theater about his life, and then we did a quiz bowl match and I am moderating.

March 8, 2013

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *