Prime Exponent

I remember little of my education at Reed College better than my calculus class with Joe Roberts [1952–2014].

I remember sitting in the classroom at Reed, watching Professor Roberts enter. He ran his hand through his hair, offered his straightforward greeting, “How is mathematics today?” and then moved, as in a dance, to an extraordinary mathematical journey on the blackboard.

I’d been blessed since elementary school with more than one extraordinary teacher of mathematics, but I never held court as head of class. It has always been a bit of mystery to me that I ever was allowed into Professor Roberts’ class, and to this day when people mention calculus I find my intellect feeling a bit fuzzy. Sometimes I find myself wondering, was I even there? In calculus class? Reed College?

Then I read Bill Donahue’s article “Prime Exponent” in the September 2014 edition of Reed, and I knew, yes, I was there. I was one of the many lucky students fortunate enough to experience this extraordinary teacher.

I often remember taking the final exam for that course—delightful! I never learned, did I pass or fail? I never received any grade from Reed College or from any teacher in the school. So I’ve never known, should I be dismayed by my profound lack of understanding or delighted because I passed the test?

I do know that I have carried into my life and into my work a profound appreciation for numbers, and I have tried as an elementary grades Waldorf schoolteacher to bring to my students some of the awesome and beautiful truths of numbers that Joe Roberts revealed to me.

I believe that some of those truths appear in my paintings, as well, but that would take more than 300 words to relate.

—Kate Waker ’72

Tucson, Arizona