by Lucy Kaplansky
My dad, Irving Kaplansky, was a mathematician, but he was also a teacher, and he taught me many things. When I was a little girl he taught me to play checkers. In our games together he would start with half his checkers, and he’d beat me anyway. But whenever I played checkers with other kids, I demolished them. He got a huge kick out of that.
He taught me math. I would come home from school when I was in grade school and high school and he would re-teach me that day’s math lesson. He was always patient and clear, and he made it all make sense. I’d go back to school the next day, and often I was the only one who would understand what was going on in math class.
I ran into a couple of my math teachers from grade school recently and they told me when they found out I was in their classes they were petrified because they knew exactly who my dad was!
My dad taught me to be organized in everything, reliable, and punctual. I think I’m the only musician I know who always shows up on time and actually does what I say I’m going to do.
He taught me that I should love what I do for a living. Throughout my childhood he would sit in his study, classical music always on the radio, doing math. Sometimes he’d look like he was doing nothing, maybe even sleeping, but he’d always say he was “thinking mathematics”. He instilled in me one of the central ideas that has informed my life, that making money for money’s sake was not important, that doing work you love is everything.
I asked him once why he loved math. He responded simply “it’s beautiful.”
He taught me that learning was fun. He especially loved learning about history and he was forever reading about and discussing history, all kinds. Because of him, I, too, love to learn about history; because of him I love to learn, period.
And perhaps most of all he taught me to love music. He was a gifted pianist, and there’s a story I’ve heard my whole life that when he was three years old he and his family attended a Yiddish musical in Toronto, and when they got home he sat down at the piano and played the show’s main song perfectly, note for note. From as early as I can remember I would sing while he played the piano. He taught me dozens of songs from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. I still remember most of these songs.
When I was older and pursued a career as a singer-songwriter, I started performing songs that he had written; one of the most popular was “A Song About Pi”. To this day it’s one of my most requested songs.
When my dad was already in his eighties, my parents often went on the road with me when I was doing concerts. We’d all get in the car and stay in hotels, and he would sell my CDs for me after the show, sometimes he was even asked for autographs. And if there was a piano on stage he would accompany me on a couple of his songs. He always brought down the house. I’m so grateful we were able to share this. The last time he sat in with me onstage he was 88 years old. I’ve heard from so many of my dad’s students over the years what a wonderful teacher he was. I know that. He was my teacher.