It’s just after 8 a.m. on Friday, and a Spanglish chorus erupts in Taica Hsu’s classroom. Ninth- and tenth-graders juggle geometry with gossip as Hsu floats from desk to rowdy desk.
The 24-year-old’s perfectly pressed lavender shirt remains unruffled as he slides around the room, darting in and out of the clusters of desks. He doesn’t quiet the students. He enlivens them. He doesn’t calm the chaos. He feeds on it.
A Latina girl asks him a question in English. He answers her in Spanish. In any language, his tenor voice lisps with the words “sine” and “cosine.” And on any problem, his methodical approach brings a clarity that cuts through the frenzy that fills the room.
Hsu, an openly gay man with degrees from Dartmouth and Stanford, is trying to redefine the way students see math–and life. It’s only his second year at Mission High School, but watch him at work.
Isai, a sophomore soccer player from Guatemala, is asking for help on an inverse trigonometry review problem. Hsu offers no answer. Instead, he asks the student questions and with each, he’s pushing Isai to figure out each step on his own. It only takes a minute. Click. Isai has it.
The student flies through the rest of the sheet – using sine, cosine and tangent to find the angles of a right triangle. Done, he looks up and grins.
Later, Terry Ha, a freshman in a geometry class filled mostly with sophomores, says, “This is fun.” Yes, “fun” is how she describes standardized test review. And she’s not alone.
“I never really liked math,” says Gilberto, a sophomore who asked that his last name not be used. “But in this class, I finally understand it.”
He owes much of that understanding to his teacher. “I want to intrinsically change the discipline,” says Hsu. “I want students to see it as something that’s not so black and white. Students think that math is either something you love or something you’ll never understand. I want to open up the discipline and make it accessible at multiple levels.”
Where most see numbers, Hsu sees tools. His students do projects in which they apply mathematical principles to illustrate social inequities, sparking discussions of race, class and sexual orientation.
In his world, trigonometry points to justice. Algebra leads to equality. Math is the vehicle, but consciousness-raising is the end.
On one wall, of his purple-painted classroom, posters proclaim the ills of war and social stratification. On another, algebra students’ projects statistically break down the injustices of homeless, drugs and teen pregnancy.
“My ultimate goal is to make students aware of the inequities in society,” he says. “I want to make them want to change their place in society.”
At Mission, a largely Latino school of about 900 students with significant African- and Asian-American populations, these discussions often center around race. Hsu is half-American and half-Taiwanese (Taiwan plus America equals “Taica”). And in his class, where a rainbow flag hangs in the back of the room and the teacher wears a “No on 8” pin more than a week after the measure has passed, sexuality also comes up.
Gilberto had never met an openly-gay person before coming to Hsu’s class, he says. He thought homosexuality was “weird,” and he balked at the idea of having Hsu as geometry teacher.
Regardless of his preconceptions, Gilberto still had to learn geometry. And when class began, prejudice faded.
“You have to meet people to understand them,” he says. “Mr. Hsu has changed the way I think about gay people.”
So much so that Gilberto, who moved to San Francisco two years ago from El Salvador, now sees a common bond.
“He knows what it’s like to be discriminated against, just like us,” Gilberto says, with “us” meaning all undocumented immigrants. “He relates to us. He understands. So even though it doesn’t look like it, we both have something in common.”
Hsu encourages awareness of queer issues on campus. He is the faculty sponsor of the gay-straight alliance, which hosts a drag show to honor the Day of Silence in the spring.
At the show, students stand before their peers and discuss their sexuality. A diversity of orientations – gay, straight, bisexual and unsure – were represented at last year’s show, says school nurse Judy Rosenfeld.
“It’s kind of something that most high schools don’t do,” Hsu says. “Mine certainly didn’t.”
Hsu came out of the closet midway through his freshman year at Dartmouth, where he double-majored in education and Spanish, with a minor in math. He started college with ambitions of becoming a doctor but soon reverted to his childhood passion, teaching.
“I was derailed, because society says that to be successful, you have to be a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman,” says Hsu. As a child, he taught math to his neighbors in a mock classroom; in middle school, he began tutoring other students. “Society doesn’t treat teaching as a respectable profession. I was caught up in that.”
Not anymore. He is committed to Mission for a total of five years, and sometime beyond that, he plans to teach overseas, likely in Central or South America. Someday he may return to school to earn a doctorate, but wherever he goes, education will be his focus.
“He’s this bright young man who went to these great schools and could have done anything,” Rosenfeld says. “But he chose to teach. And he chose to teach here at Mission. There’s something to be said for that.”
For his part, Hsu says, “I’m here to learn something too. I can teach about mathematics, and I can bring a piece of my life, but I can also gain understanding of life for kids in a major city. I want them to teach me things. I want them to question things, even when that means questioning me.”