ProfTalk: George Leiter on World Travel, Rock Fame, Math

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Professor George Leiter performs on stage with Earth, Wind and Fire. In addition to teaching math, Leiter plays rock music every week. (Photo courtesy of Leiter.)

Tell a little about your background. You graduated from Macalester, didn’t you?

Yes. I will try to give you the funniest things. I grew up in Kansas, mostly around Kansas City. I left high school when I was 15, came here (Macalester) when I was 16. So it’s quite interesting: I was very young when I arrived here. I was actually looking at Dartmouth and just found Macalester. I have a long, complicated history of how I was going to go to Carleton – the criteria I used to choose my college were ridiculous. I didn’t go to Carleton because the guy who showed me around campus had duct tape on his glasses right there [touching the bridge of his glasses] and the admissions guy at Dartmouth was wearing white socks. (laughs) I mean, it was completely ridiculous why I had chosen to come here.

What did you participate in during your stay here?

When I was here I had a great time. I was very involved. I was an RA, I was a dorm president, I was on the program board, I ran for the president. If you look back in The Mac Weekly for Spring ’76, I think there’s a photo of me with long hair racing for president. I majored in math and chemistry. And I was deeply influenced by Professor Konhauser from the mathematics department. I came in thinking I was going to be in chemistry and probably pre-med. And I had a great experience in the chemistry department, but Dr Konhauser really took an interest in me and helped me. I mean, I really think I knew I had been interested in teaching and education since I was 12, but it really helped me. He was the person who started the problem for the week and was a real inspiration to me.

What about the post-graduation?

I was hired at St. Paul Academy, the private school about six blocks away, the day after I graduated from college. Without an interview, without a CV, someone came by and saw me tutoring someone and said, ‘Do you want to work here? And I was there ever since. I took a few years off to teach in the Netherlands and took a year off to teach in a rural school in Jamaica. But other than that, I was six blocks away.

Fun Fact: After I graduated from college I lived in a house with a bunch of other Macalester graduates, and we formed a really bad punk rock band and got really popular as a kind of comedic relief. We warmed up some pretty well-known bands, The Replacements and stuff like that. But we were just awful. (Laughs) I think WMCN might have a copy of our single.

What was the name of your band?

Tuff rabbits.

Weren’t you in a movie too?

Oh yes. I was the bailiff in a film called “Justice”. I’m on IMDB! The film was written and funded by a small Minneapolis law firm specializing in civil rights litigation. Apparently, the firm’s four lawyers got a big deal and decided that making a film would be a big break with the legal world. One of the lawyers wrote the script; they all served as producers. They hired a few professional Hollywood actors and used local “talent” for the rest of the cast. As a usher I am on screen for about three seconds. I actually can’t believe I got any credit, but apparently being the former math teacher for one of the producers gives you a head start in the movie world. And the funny thing about being a bailiff is that I was just supposed to be a juror, but when the actor showed up for the bailiff role he was too big to fit into the uniform! We filmed at the Saint-Paul courthouse. Being dressed in a cop uniform (with a fake pistol) at the courthouse was a blast. Everyone thought I was a real cop and asked me all kinds of questions. I was tempted to go out and annoy random passers-by, but I changed my mind. This is my film career in a nutshell.

Where did you go to college?

I did graduate part-time at U of M, then I went to Harvard and got my masters in education in 89. And then I came back here for a few years, then it was in 1993-95 when I was in the Netherlands. And then 1999-2000, that was when I was in Jamaica. And now I’m here. And it was really sweet. I got an email from Macalester last summer asking if I was interested in becoming a visiting professor, and it was exciting. And now, I just took a job in Madagascar for next year, so I’m going to move there.

What did you do in the Netherlands?

I taught at the American School in The Hague. I taught math in high school.

Different styles of teaching there?

I would say the only thing is that students and parents are much more used to traveling. If I tried to take kids to downtown Minneapolis from St. Paul’s Academy, their parents would all be worried about them. And there we took some kids and took them by plane to London and said, “Come back in eight hours, we’ll be at the station!” The students there grow up like this.

What did you do in Jamaica?

Since 1993, I have been bringing computers to Jamaican schools. I run a small non-profit organization (Little World Schoolhouse). In fact, we just sent 30 laptops there, which is the first time we’ve done so in a little while. I was very active in the 90s when companies were handing over computers, and I was going to put them in some schools there with friends of mine. And it made me want to spend more time there. So I went to teach at a school called York Castle High School in a rural area called Brownstown. I set up a computer lab for them and I was working in the computer lab with the computer professor. Then they had a math teacher who got sick, so I did part of the year teaching math. I lived in a house with a few Jamaican guys and it was a great experience. I still love the place and am still involved to go there.

What are you going to do in Madagascar?

I am going to teach at the American school in Antananarivo. My partner already teaches there in the fourth year. So I went and visited during the break, and it’s a spectacular place, so I can’t wait to be there. At this point, we think we’ll be there in a few years, but we’ll see. It’s a small school, but it’s lovely and it’s growing and they need math and science teachers, and that’s in Madagascar! (Laughs)

How was it coming back to Macalester?

The other math teachers are so welcoming, entertaining and engaging. They are just funny people. Some of the meetings are very funny. I felt very lucky that way. It’s funny that there are still teachers here since I was here. I’m right next to Dr. Roberts who I had as a teacher, and Martin Gunderson is here. I think I was in his very first class that he ever taught here. And then the students, I think it’s hard to compare. In many ways, they are the same. I see the students here now maybe a little more affected by the financial problems in the world and a little more concerned. They just can’t frolic like people frolic when I was in college. (laughs) People didn’t worry about the draft anymore and times were good and a lot of people were maybe having a little too much fun at Macalester. (laughs) I’m always impressed with Macalester’s commitment to internationalism and social causes; I am encouraged. I want to write a little article for Alumni Magazine to say, “This is still the place you know and love.

Has Mac Influence Your Life Path?

I would say very well. I think I was incredibly happy at Mac because I prospered academically, which I didn’t have in high school, and was positively influenced by ethics here, concern for global issues and of social justice. I think I’ve really evolved a lot in this direction.

What do you like best about teaching?

It is twofold. I really like math. I think this is where Dr Konhauser influenced me. Instead of being the “wah wah wah” voice of the Peanuts on the board, I’d like someone to think, “Oh wow, that’s pretty cool!

It’s like doing puzzles. People do jigsaw puzzles for fun; Hope people like math the same way. But I also like what I would call the pastoral side. Especially when you are working with junior high school kids, to guide them through these rough waters and then watch them on the other end develop into self-sufficient human beings who are interested in doing good in the world.

Favorite part of math?

Problem solving. Whenever I teach, I try to find issues that will really engage people. It all started with the problem of the week here. This kind of puzzle problem is what really motivates me.

Projects for the future?

I look forward to the teaching adventure to come. But I still want to hit the big time in the rock and roll world. (laughs) I still play every week. Fun fact, Willie Gambucci, who was a major in drama and graduated from Mac last spring, I taught him in high school and performed in his high school band. We released a CD, you can listen to it on Spotify. (laughs) I still love music a lot. I know it’s never going to go anywhere. But it keeps me busy. I actually play on Friday nights with Mac graduates. That’s what’s good about Macalester in the Twin Cities. I think there is a funny name like the “one mile club” for people who never go too far. But I still socialize and see a lot of my Macalester classmates.

Do you have other things to suggest to the community?

I sang with Earth, Wind and Fire! (laughs) We (Leiter and his partner) were at a charity auction and someone else paid thousands of dollars to sing along with Earth, Wind and Fire, and we said, ‘Oh, that’ is so cool that you did that. And then they said to us, “We don’t want to do it, we want to see you do it.” And we were like, “Okay, we’ll do it!” So we had to get up and sing along with Earth, Wind and Fire at the convention center last May.

Another random thing is that Steven Levitt, the author of Freakonomics, is a former student of mine, and we’re pretty close. In fact, if you go to the Freakonomics podcasts, I did an interview at the Fitzgerald Theater about his life and then we did a bowl quiz and I’m the moderator.

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