Editor’s Note: This story was written for and originally published in “The Tattler,” Ithaca High School’s student newspaper.

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By The Tattler’s Sophia Shi:

Frederick Deppe’s classroom is tucked away in a corner of upstairs H-Building in Ithaca High School, sometimes overlooked but always welcoming. The man inside, too, is always willing to help students with their work. I sat down with him to learn more about this math enthusiast.

Deppe. Courtesy of The Tattler.

1 – Where did you grow up / go to school?

Frederick Deppe: I grew up in Chicago and went to Morgan Park High School. I lived in the south side of Chicago, then I moved to Evanston, then we moved back to the south side of Chicago.

2 – Tell us about your family.

FD: I have a brother and a sister (and my mom and my dad). I was a preacher’s kid, and we were connected to the church a lot. We also were involved in the Peace Movement and things like that. When I was seven, I remember campaigning for George McGovern. I went to a lot of rallies and protests.

I have four kids. One is 26 and working, one is at Ohio State right now, in his first year there, one is in high school, and one is in middle school. My wife works here in town.

3 – What type of student were you in high school?

FD: I was a good student. I worked really hard—did all my homework. That’s about it.

4 – Has your high-school experience influenced how you approach teaching?

FD: Yeah. My math teacher whom I had for three years was a really great teacher, and he influenced me in ways that I can’t explain—little things; for example, how important it is to visualize a problem to see what’s going on. He tried to get me to specialize in math right away, but I resisted that. I went into sociology and other things before coming back to math. I’ve since connected with him over the Internet and thanked him for everything he did for me. It took me a long time to do that.

5 – When did you become interested in mathematics?

FD: I’ve always really liked math, and it’s just something that comes naturally to me. It’s really fun to learn, and it always makes sense. Once I get it, it just kind of sticks in my brain in a way that other stuff doesn’t. I love other subjects. I took so many history classes in college that I could teach history, too, but my memory’s not that good for all the facts. I think that, to be a good history teacher, you have to be a really good storyteller. I don’t think my memory’s very good for that.

6 – You used to be involved in social work. Why did you transition to teaching?

FD: When I went to college, I just wanted to learn about everything. Sociology was a major that made sense to me because I love working with people, but it was sort of analytical, so it satisfied both needs. Plus, it allowed me the most electives. When I got out, I had a bachelor’s in sociology and didn’t know what to do with it. I was thinking about further education, but I ended up getting into social work, working with the homeless. We would go to shelters, drop-in centers, and even people on the street and provide them with services. We tried to provide a holistic approach to helping the homeless with their health needs and trying to get them into housing, treatment, jobs, and things like that.

Then, I transitioned to a behind-the-scenes job in support—the Illinois State Support Center. When I started with them, we provided resources for the people on the front lines. Then the funding dried up and I became unemployed for a time. Then I helped with getting teens jobs in local establishments with money from the [Chicago] Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training. We were training them to get a job and keep the job. It was pretty successful.

While I was working in social work, I was trying to figure out what I really wanted to do. I really did like working with people, but sometimes it felt like the system was so set up against their success that it was hopeless. That was hard to deal with. But I still wanted to work with people, and it dawned on me that teaching would be a great thing because I could work with young people before they got into the world, and it would be more hopeful. I could help people in a more proactive way. I realize that I was called to be a teacher. It just took me a long time to figure that out.

7 – What’s the hardest part about teaching a subject like math?

FD: Finding different ways to explain something and trying to imagine a problem that someone else is having when you aren’t having that problem. When I went into teaching math, I knew that my main problem would be trying to put myself outside of myself to see the blocks that other people have.

8 – What do you think of the perception that the sciences and the humanities are mutually exclusive?

FD: I don’t really think they’re that mutually exclusive. I was in sociology, so I can kind of see both sides. One of the things I found difficult was that sociology is a social “science”, but I don’t know how scientific you can be when it comes to people and understanding people. I think there’s a limit to what science can tell you. That’s one reason I like teaching math, because math is pretty cut and dry, and that’s the way my brain works. My family’s told me for years that I just see the black and white, just this or that.

9 – You play the trumpet in the on-campus jazz group, the Players. What draws you to music?

FD: Music is kind of a lifeline for me. I listen to and play music all day long, every day—not when I’m teaching, obviously. It helps me go through life. It’s difficult to describe what it does for me, but I guess it uplifts me. It connects me with the rest of the universe in a way. It’s spiritual, too; there’s a religious aspect. Like I said, I was brought up in a church, and it’s impossible to separate the music from the religion and the spirit for me. I like all forms of music, especially jazz, rock, folk, classical, reggae, a little bit of blues. I play whenever I can. And I sing. When I was in college, I sang in the concert choir. My roommate was a vocal major and he dragged me into it, and I was like, “Yeah, this is great!”

We went on tour for two years, and there was nothing like that. It was awesome.
I had braces when I was a senior in high school and a freshman in college, which was pretty weird, so it kind of got in the way of my trumpet playing. But once the braces came off, I played again. I was in a funk band for a year, and then I got into jazz. I didn’t know a lot about jazz until I was about 18, so I came into jazz really late. But I got really into it. I sat in a lot of clubs in Chicago where you could go after hours just to hear musicians and stuff.

My talent is in reading music, but I’m working on improvising. It’s like composing in the moment, so it takes a great amount of thought and talent. You really have to think on your feet. I help out with the Players, run by Jim Scarpulla, who is a great musician. It’s a small jazz combo. We work primarily on improvisation, which is usually learning how to play notes that are part of the chords that are passing along. You’re making music while you’re trying to match the harmony in those chords. It’s really interesting and challenging.

10 – What do you like most about IHS/ICSD?

FD: I like the diversity. I think that it’s just an amazing group of people, especially the students. I guess the faculty, as people know, could be more diverse, but the student body is really a great mix of kids. I come from a diverse background in a way because my high school was 40 percent white and around 60 percent black. I’m used to dealing with a lot of different people, and I like that. And it’s not just ethnic diversity here. We have both the very poor and the very rich and we have people from rural settings and as urban a setting as you can get in Upstate New York. We have really really bright students and we have students with all kinds of needs. I think it’s just really cool to interact with all these different people.

11 – What would you change about the school?

FD: Nothing!

12 – What’s your fondest memory of the high school?

FD: I mentioned that my memory is not very good, right? In general, it’s when students have that “a-ha moment” or if I just hear a student say, “I love math!” or something like that (if they’re not saying it for me—if I just overhear somebody saying it). That’s what it’s all about for me. The main thing I have in mind at the end of the day and at the end of the year is that the students just find that joy in doing math that I have. That’s why it says on my board “Math Is Fun and Fun Is Good”—that’s what I’m all about!

13 – What’s the craziest thing you ever did in high school / college?

FD: Got a ride from this guy into Milwaukee. It was no big deal—we were hitchhiking, but it was a little bit different then. Anyways, when he dropped us off, he asked us if we wanted to come over to his house, and we were like, “No, no, that’s alright.” We had somewhere to go, anyways. It wasn’t really a weird thing at the time, but that was it.
Later on, when it came out that Jeffrey Dahmer was in the news and stuff, he lived in Milwaukee. My friend read about him in Time magazine, and saw one of the pictures and said, “I recognize that vehicle.”

14 – What advice would you give to students?

FD: Work hard all the time, not just before the test. And then the night before the test, you get a good night’s rest, and be well prepared. Don’t cram.

15 – Quick! Tell us your favorite math joke.

FD: What did the tree say to the bush? “Gee, I’m a tree!” I told you I don’t remember jokes very well!

Fun facts:
Favorite high-school subjects: Math and history
Favorite theorem: This year, the fundamental theorem of calculus
Smoothest jazz cat there ever was: John Coltrane
Favorite food: All kinds of seafood
Desert island necessity: Besides my family, something to make music with


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.