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Stuyvesant Students Mourn a Math Teacher Who Was No. 1

Wednesday, November 02, 2011 - 05:39 PM

When word got around Stuyvesant High School on Wednesday that Richard Geller, a beloved and well-respected math teacher, had died the day before, a saying of Mr. Geller's was suddenly everywhere: “Math is No. 1."

That was his distinct message, and he liked to repeat it -- a lot, students said.

“He would shout it out at least once a class,” said Julian Michaels, 17, a senior. “I feel bad for the kids who won’t get to have him.”

In Mr. Geller's honor, Julian had scrawled the saying in thick, red marker on the fingers of his two hands. Other students had written it on their arms or legs.

Mr. Geller, who taught math at Stuyvesant for 29 years and led the school’s math team for nearly two decades, died Tuesday at New York University Langone Medical Center after complications related to melanoma, his wife, Barbara Geller, said Wednesday. He was 65.

Stuyvesant will hold a service to honor Mr. Geller on Nov. 9 at 4 p.m. at the school’s Murray Kahn Theater, according to the school's Web site.

The sense of loss was obvious on Wednesday at the Stuyvesant campus. A YouTube video of the commencement speech that Mr. Geller delivered at last June's graduation ceremony played repeatedly on a screen just inside the school’s Tribeca Bridge entrance. (See the video below.)

Remy Moorhead, 16, a junior, said the normally cheery math teachers were much more subdued as they walked through the fourth floor corridor.

“I never even had him in class, but he offered to tutor students who needed the help,” she said.

Jesse Dowdeswell, 16, a junior from Greenwich Village, said he never really cared for math and walked into the first day of Mr. Geller’s algebra II and trigonometry course with one thought: “Oh, I’m doomed.”

“I had this idea that he was hard, and I was right,” he said. “But I remember thinking I was wrong about him. As much as I resented him for being hard, I now resent every other teacher who does not care as much.”

Mr. Geller seemed to care so much that he saved every grade of every student he ever taught, his wife said in a telephone interview from the couple's home on the Upper West Side.

She said that during a recent doctor’s appointment, his physician happened to be a former Stuyvesant graduate, who had been in a class of Mr. Geller’s.

“She said to him, ‘You were the best math teacher I ever had,' ” his widow said. “The next appointment he went to, he copied her yearbook picture and on the reverse side wrote down her grades. He kept everything, he was very committed.”

Mrs. Geller said her husband was still teaching up to two weeks ago.

On the last day of class the year he was in Mr. Geller's class, Julian Michaels said, the teacher left students with a few parting words, advice that somewhat surprised him after a year of hearing “Math is No. 1.”

“He said to us, ‘I know I say math is No. 1,’” Mr. Michaels said. “But really family is No. 1.’”

Text with this YouTube video of Mr. Geller says: This is the speech Richard gave at Stuyvesant graduation but was recorded in Florida a couple of days later by loving relatives. Richard flew to Florida immediately after the graduation to attend the funeral of his mother-in-law. The Florida audience insisted on an encore performance!

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