Robert Walker eyes his latest challenge with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
"Tell me something. Do you know how to multiply without multiplying?" He grabs a piece of paper and eggs on his interviewer. "Come on, give me some numbers, any numbers."
In a flurry of numbers and laughter, this 30-year veteran of teaching math reveals his trade secrets.
"I hook 'em on the basics!" he exclaims. "I make it a game, get their attention, and gain their confidence," he says. "Each child is different, but there are basic things you can use."
Honing in on those fundamentals, Dr. Walker says, is the key to his success. Over his three decades in the profession, he has seen theories come and go and observed the national controversies over balancing basics with more conceptual skills. To him, the constant turmoil is misguided.
"Math is simple, and it relates to everything you do, but you have to put in the time to get across the basics," he says. Indeed, Walker has little patience for what he calls "theories dreamt up by some guy with a PhD," charging that "we're sacrificing our kids to satisfy these political egos."
Walker dismisses the current battle over whether schools should be emphasizing math applications or basic skills with a story.
Twenty years ago, the latest round of state test scores had just lowered morale at the Melvin Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, where he was teaching fifth and sixth grade.
"Math scores were dropping, and parents were mad," Walker recalls. "The principal came to me and said, 'Do something.'"
It just happened that the city was sponsoring a toy-boat regatta and the kids wanted to take part. Walker's response: Learn the math involved in building the boat, and you can join in.
"Of course, it worked," he remembers with no small pride. "The kids all learned to cut the wood to an eighth of an inch, how plane to 1/16th of an inch, and so forth."
Equally important, the children's grades began going up. "You have to have every trick in your bag," he says.
The son of a Choctaw Indian father, who was a third-grade dropout, and a Jamaican mother, Walker says math was always easy for him. He attributes his career path to witnessing the difficult life led by his father, who was a railroad worker. "I never wanted to work that hard," he says. "My dad would come home after long days of hard, physical work with 50 cents, sometimes nothing."
But he learned a great deal from his father's ethics. "He always told me to treat [people] the way I'd like to be treated," Walker says. And he encouraged his son to aim high.
After a car accident in 1939, doctors told Walker he'd never walk again. His father flatly rejected that diagnosis, Walker recalls proudly. "He always told me, 'Son, you can do anything you want. "
Not only did he walk again, but he went on to get three master's degrees, one in education, one in engineering, and another in math from the University of California at Los Angeles. He then received his doctorate in math from the University of Florida.
Walker didn't go right into teaching. Initially, he explains sheepishly, "I was looking for money." He worked as a thermodynamics engineer at Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International for 12 years. But one day he realized he wasn't happy. He wanted to work with people. So he took "a huge pay cut" and started teaching in the California public school system.
Walker has retired, but still substitutes and maintains a 20-year commitment to free tutoring in Pacoima, one of Los Angeles's poorest areas.
He was recently honored with the Golden Rule Award from the Volunteer Center of the San Fernando Valley and the J.C. Penney Company. "He is a very valuable resource in our community," says Vi D. To, chairman of the judging committee.
Connie Taylor Broadous, director of the Pacoima Community Youth Culture Center, couldn't agree more. "He's very versatile and can work with any child. He senses what is wrong and uses whatever it takes to get through," she says.
His students can vouch for that. Mona Colvin, an adult who went back to college this year, credits Walker with helping her through a tough algebra course. "I was getting a 'D' and he brought me up to an 'A,' " she says, noting that it was "the way he made math seem simple that helped."
Walker's no-holds-barred commitment to his students comes through loud and clear. "I tell the kids they can call me at midnight if they need it," he says. "[Mona] took advantage of that," he adds, laughing.
Walker says teaching is the most significant work he can do. "Children are the leaders of the next generation. We've got to make sure they're prepared." He adds that math is a crucial tool because "it's the only true universal language."
Walker is concerned that as computers and calculators dazzle parents and children, an entire generation will not understand the basic math that underlies the very tools they're using. But he doesn't dwell on the problems he sees. Especially given that this particular day is his birthday.
For once, numbers stump this math whiz. "How old am I? Let's see," he shrugs and flips through his little black book. Finally, he tosses it aside. "I really don't know. I'm not aging now that I'm doing what I want to do."