Anthony Bourdain: The Stains and Tattoos He Left On Me as a Math Teacher

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It was just before 7 am. on June 8. I was driving, returning home after getting some coffee. It was then when I heard the news that Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life. Because you are not stationary, because you are in charge of a moving vehicle, hearing absolutely devastating news like this automatically catapults you into some dream state where everything just goes …black.

The juxtaposition of a quiet, routine morning drive with news that you were not ready for — could never be ready for — makes everything at that moment surreal and absurd. A moment that morphs into cemented moments that will bob in and out of my life with a frequency and intensity that I will never be able to predict. Sort of like prime numbers, unsure of when they will occur next.

I spent the entire evening of June 8, 2018 — another date to be sadly catalogued in my life as a day of sombreness— watching CNN’s tribute to Anthony Bourdain. It was only then did the shock start wearing off and immense sadness and pain roll in with the subtlety of a tsunami. I was drowning in a sorrow that was both explicable and ineffable.

Bourdain’s death hit the world hard, because he hit the world hard — every corner, every culture, every custom, every belief…every damn person who had a story to tell while breaking bread and/or throwing back shots of recently fermented alcohol. His instant removal from the equation of existence on this planet has left so many of us to ponder how he represented the best of us for all of us — regardless of who we were and where we were.

Now take that kind of influence and multiply it by close to twenty years — my entire time in education. Even though I taught math and physics, I was constantly showing students in my class episodes/clips of A Cook’s Tour or No Reservations. My former students, now it their 30’s, were quick to remind me of my unexplained classroom rituals.

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I wasn’t showing them Anthony Bourdain as some kind of “break” or “treat” in class. Nope. It wasn’t some planned diversion. Then why was I doing it? For the simple and often overlooked answer of why not? It was simply a gut instinct move, not knowing the dividends it would pay off for me as a teacher — when his life would be tragically taken by the demons of depression.

I met him in 2005, at a book signing in Toronto. More than two hundred people showed up. He was even big then. When he has was taking questions from the audience, someone asked him “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”. Comically annoyed by an almost corporate/fame-tinged question, Bourdain gave this haunting answer:

“Jeez…I don’t know…I could be strung out on heroin in some cheap hotel in Vietnam”.

I swear on any life that those words up above, give or take a few, were the ones he said 13 years ago in a Toronto bookstore.

I have all his books. Read every one of them — Kitchen Confidential twice. I have seen every episode of Cooks’ Tour, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown — many multiple times. It took a while for some of us to catch on, but Bourdain wasn’t interested in the food as much as he was interested in the people he was eating food with. As Don Lemon of CNN said during the tribute, he was simply using food as a conduit to know people, to hear their stories, and then share those stories with us.

Life as we know it, especially as we get older, gets whittled down to connecting with people — it is the most important reason for spinning around the Sun the hopefully 78 times or more that we will…

I am down to a few dozen now.

Anthony Bourdain was more than an inspiration to me. He was more than my guide to seeing the world as a curious traveler, and not as a jaded tourist. He was my bloody #@! idol to teach — and keep learning dammit — with unflinching passion, a punk ethos, and unforgiving humanity.

Just like food is merely a vessel to connect with people, mathematics becomes that as well — its highest purpose is for human flourishing(Francis Su) and for deep human connection. Lesson plans, over baked pedagogy, getting students ready for meaningless exams, grades, gold stars, etc. should not be our primary goals in teaching mathematics — or whatever subject you are teaching. How can the magnificence of life, the preciousness of life, the equity imbalances in our classrooms, etc. not make the everyday connections teachers have with students be the most important thing?

And, yet everyday, we often fail to recognize the sea of curious and hopefully caring humanity in front of us through that imperfect and gritty lens. My first principal, Jean Goodier, told me before she retired, “teach the student not the subject”.

I think Bourdain told me, through thousands of words and hours of video footage — at the very end of the day — “know the student not the subject”.

That is not to say I don’t love mathematics or want to/need to learn more everyday, but not at the expense of learning and living with the people in your classroom and larger communities. Music connects us. Food connects us. Mathematics greatest power is to do the exact same thing. It needs to be humanized. The day before Bourdain’s shocking passing, I did a podcast with the Human Restoration Project. Coincidentally — or perhaps not — I answered the very first question about why I wrote my book, Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics like this:

Mathematics is above all a human endeavor. Filled with human ideas, human questions, and human curiosities…to find out more about mathematics and each other.

If that isn’t homage to the everlasting impression that Anthony Bourdain has had on me as a math educator, then I really don’t what it is. His influence needed to be inked and somehow immortalized. I referenced him twice in my book.

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As crushing as it is to me for the world to have lost Anthony, I want to use his death to underscore, in no uncertain terms that there is, at this point, only one path of teaching/learning mathematics that I am on.

Nothing else matters now.

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Everyone that knew Anthony Bourdain well — and even those who observed from a far like myself and millions others — said he was extremely kind, giving, warm, and sincere. He was the same person on and off the show. His intelligence and wit were through the roof — Don Lemon of CNN remarked how he was a better journalist than most(even though he was “merely a cook”). Yet, through all these accolades, Bourdain decided that the phrase “I Am Certain of Nothing”, tattooed to himself in ancient Greek, would be the best way to describe himself.

Defiant to the end. Curious to the end. Punk to the end. Humble to the end.

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His colossal influence on the world is only now being appraised — in his absence. Addition by subtraction in the most gut-wrenching manner.

Nothing better would honor his magnificent, joy and scar-filled life for me than to leave you with a one of his favorite songs of all time and one of the best articles I have come across on the life and impact of Anthony Bourdain.

With more admiration, love, and respect than you could every possibly imagine…

Author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics and Co-Author of Math Recess: Playful Learning in the Age of Disruption. Speaker. Amplify and Mathigon

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