“You pays your money, you gets your choice.”

That was the adage she always repeated to us, shrugging her shoulders and grinning with her lips pursed and a twinkle in her blue-brown eyes, whenever we complained.  At first, I had no idea what she was talking about—no idea that this poorly worded, grammatically egregious sentence could possibly contain any profundity or life lesson. The molecules of my mind bounced off one another in agitation as she spoke and I sat there grappling with math problem after math problem.  What did she mean, “You pays your money?” What did this have to do with math?

It was only later that I understood that this phrase and its meaning were only part of the essence of the woman standing in front of me, Ms. Melanie Lonetto. Because, that memorable year, I would pay my “money” every day as I struggled with equations, trigonometry or limits and every night as I pored over my math homework.

An elderly woman with straw-blond silky hair gathered into a flattened circular bun that crowned her head, Ms. Lonetto floated around with only her chalk in her hand—no notes, no sheets typed up for us, no graphs on overhead projectors.  I quickly found out that this wasn’t a class where I could eat my sandwich in peace—I was always scribbling furiously, my nose a few centimeters away from the smudged page.  My first week, I sat there staring at the red marks of my test. I approached Ms. Lonetto gingerly.  What was wrong with me?

“How do you get to Carnegie hall?” she demanded, almost belligerently. “Practice, Practice, Practice!”

Another Lonetto-ism, I would soon find out.  But I took her advice, going home and doing every problem about trigonometry inequalities in the textbook and re-doing every problem from class.  I still have to recall her visual representation of the cosine curve every time I draw it (“It’s a Grecian urn,” she would say, her arms raised up in the air.) She had done her legendary 45-minute trigonometry review in class—I pored over it for 5 hours, making sure I understood every derivation and concept.  It wasn’t up to her, the teacher, whether I would fail or succeed.  It was up to me—it was my choice.  Friends always ask after we receive a grade, “What’d you get?”  But it wasn’t what I “got” on a test; it was what I earned that counted. The next test, I was the only one in the class with no red marks, and the music of Carnegie Hall was sweet in my ears.

Ms. Lonetto, I found out, was a no-nonsense teacher.  She was the one who would go to the door in the middle of a lesson and yell at people in the hallway for not going to class.  Once, someone took out a calculator—oh, how he regretted that action during the next 30 minutes as she lectured us on how only a brain and a pencil were necessary for math! And on math test day, woe to the person who did not space his desk exactly five tiles away from the adjacent row.  But her strict methods were almost motherly, only making me look forward to each test to gain her appreciation and to prove myself in the class.  She made me realize that math is an art that can continuously be perfected.

When we suddenly found out, one bleak morning at the end of 3rd quarter, that she had died in her sleep of a heart attack, my mind was in shock.  I couldn’t associate her cheerful grin and twinkling eyes with the cold reality of death.  As the year went on with our new teacher—one who let us use calculators and gave us note sheets—I realized that even though Ms. Lonetto had left me, her passion for mathematics hadn’t. In the end, she was right.  I had my choice—the choice to be stellar or mediocre, the choice between passion and nonchalance, the choice to really learn or just listen. If I paid my money—if I put all of myself into what I did and never gave up—then I could choose what I wanted to be.