Out of the Ashes
Hartnell students raise money for popular math teacher after his home burns down.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Three days after his house burned down, Mark Weber is back at Hartnell College doing what he does best: teaching math. Yellow chalk dust covers his right hand and smudges his shirt. He draws bell-shaped curves, explaining to students in his hoarse and animated voice how to chart bear weights and Nolan Ryan fastballs. Somehow he connects the statistics lesson to powerful magnets—and a big bullwhip—salvaged from the fire.
When the insurance representative came to his south Salinas rental, Weber says he detailed the important things he recovered. “The pets are saved, hard drive, wallet…bullwhip over there,” he says, cracking up his classroom. “She saw it. And I said, ‘That was a joke.’ ”
On Nov. 4, Weber was standing in his bathroom when he smelled smoke. He heard a knock from the laundry room but figured it was his girlfriend washing clothes. His neighbor alerted him that his house was on fire.
Weber immediately ran to the backyard to check on Antifeist, his 37-pound pet tortoise. He watched Antifeist’s igloo burn to the ground, but the pet lived. “I still don’t know how it survived,” Weber says. Firefighters suspect a faulty heating pad for the turtle caused the fire.
In the classroom, Weber continues on his original tangent: the magnets. A few years ago he spilled some screws and thought it would be cool to have a magnet to pick them up. So he ordered three neodymium magnets, which he says are strong enough to hold up a sledgehammer. He kept them wrapped in a towel and attached to one of his file cabinets. After the fire the cabinet ended up on his lawn. The other day Weber noticed a soda can stuck to one of the magnets. He guesses that a firefighter walked by and the magnetic force ripped it out of his hand. The students laugh.
Weber tries to return to standard deviations and means. Then a student inquires about Antifeist (Weber says the turtle got the name because its demeanor is the opposite of his feisty ex-girlfriend). But Weber saves the details of his turtle’s rescue for his next class.
Before Weber enters his next class, students tape cash and personal checks to a big cardboard card. Their uplifting messages show concern for Weber beyond normal courtesy. Students describe Weber as a brilliant, compassionate numbers wizard.
The minimum class size is 39 but Weber has taken on more than 150 students because he can’t tell them no. Students who thought they would never graduate say he helped them pass math. They say he is remarkably patient and giving of his time, even meeting with them on weekends.
After donating money to Weber, student Stephanie Thompson says the reason students are rallying behind him is simple. “We felt we should help him like he helps us,” Thompson says. Students have raised more than $2,000.
“I took math with another teacher,” says student Lydia Lazcano. “It was like speaking Chinese. [Weber] makes it so you can understand it. He has the patience that all teachers should have.”
The students’ lookout comes into the classroom and says Weber is on his way. Weber steps inside and puts down his box of chalk and briefcase, oblivious to the giant card Parker holds. Parker presents him the card. He quickly glances at it and says, “I don’t know what to say so we might as well do some math.”
But Weber doesn’t ignore the fire for long. He says it’s a bummer that he didn’t have insurance. But his spirits have been high ever since firefighters rescued his turtle.
Weber says he had to take the pet to an animal hospital. (His neighbors helped pay the bill.) “It smelled like smoke and it probably will forever,” Weber jokes, adding that Antifeist exhaled smoke after the fire.
After he retells the Mexican bullwhip and rare-earth magnet stories, Weber eventually gets to division.
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Raindrops sprinkle on Weber’s charred possessions. Singed books, melted DVDs and a shattered TV set are among the blackened items scattered across the lawn. The granny unit he rented near Salinas High School is boarded up and gutted. Although most of his keepsakes are ruined, Weber manages to find humor.
“I’m kind of a pack rat,” he says. “It gives me an opportunity to clean everything out.”
Weber walks to the backyard with a Red Bull in hand. He says he has been crashing at his mom’s house and his girlfriend’s place. With half-closed eyes, he says he hasn’t slept much since the fire.
Water drips from the roof onto a pile of hay, where his turtle’s igloo once stood. His other pet, a cat named Caruthers, also survived the fire. Weber says he was able to catch his cat because it is fat and slow. “That’s the one benefit of overfeeding my cat,” he jokes.
Then he becomes serious, and says he is touched by current and former students who have helped him out financially. “In light of this kind of outpouring I realize maybe I am making a difference in their lives,” he says.
TO DONATE TO WEBER CALL HENRIETTA NUNO AT 905-1092 OR E-MAIL BARBARA SMITH AT BXSMITH@UCSC.EDU