by Kia Wassenaar
Mr. Hickey has been a long time person of interest at Monticello. Hundreds of students pass through his class each year, taking Trigonometry and AB or BC Calculus. He has a comfortable, goofy classroom presence and an incredible energy that rubs off on his students. Most importantly, he really seems to love what he is doing.
The other day in class, Mr. Hickey said, “I treat calc like a person,” a statement that reflects the excitement and care he feels for the material he’s teaching. Trig functions and derivatives aren’t just math for him, they are part of understanding how the world goes round. For me, the material never gets boring because he is constantly reminding his students that math exists all around us. All we have to do is look for it.
In 2014, Mr. Hickey was elected by the senior class as one of two senior representatives to read names at graduation, a task awarded to teachers who have made a lasting, positive impact on their students. His students bring back consistently high AP exam scores, despite a laid-back classroom setting and relaxed grading system. He is the source of countless senior quotes and is frequently asked to write recommendations for college applications, marking him one of the most widely respected and beloved teachers at Monticello.
But for as much time as we spend with him in class, Mr. Hickey remains mostly a mystery. After two years in class with Mr. Hickey, the most I could gather about him was that he had a successful career before teaching and that he owns a lot of math pun themed t-shirts. What many people may not know about Mr. Hickey is that he played electric bass in a rock band in high school. He graduated from William and Mary with a BA in Psychology and Sociology, not Math, as many might have guessed. He and his wife got married at a courthouse, just the two of them. These things, and so many other things, have made him the person and the teacher we know today.
“I would say my favorite thing about teaching, is getting kids to stretch themselves, to do things they didn’t think they could do. And that, that’s my favorite thing. At all levels, for any subject, having taught history and math, getting kids to do things that they didn’t think they could do, to stretch themselves intellectually,” says Mr. Hickey
For those of you who want the full scoop, the following interview with Mr. Hickey covers everything from his professional life to his insights into the joys and difficulties of parenting.
Kia Wassener: Where did you grow up?
Mr. Hickey: I grew up in northern New Jersey in a suburb of New York City. It was, to give you an idea of where I grew up, it was- I believe the Housewives of New Jersey is filmed in my hometown.
H: Yes, it was an affluent suburb of New York City, about 30 or 40 minutes from the GW bridge- the bridge that connects New Jersey to New York. Yeah that’s what it was like.
K: What were you like in high school?
H: Hah, what was I like in high school.. um, I was, a good student. I played basketball- that was sort of my main extracurricular thing. I did some volunteer work. I was a good student. I wouldn’t say, like, great. I tried to keep a balance, I always have, between academics and athletics and social and that sort of thing. I had a pretty good head on my shoulders in high school, I think. I don’t really know what else to say, yeah. I had my small group of friends, my four or five group of friends, but I got along with most other people- yeah that’s about it. I loved sports, I loved music.
H: Oh right. I was in a little band. We played in battle of the bands.
K: Really? What did you play?
H: We played five songs, over and over again. My poor parents, because the drums and everything were stationed at my house, so we would practice in the basement. The same five songs.
K: What were the songs?
H: I believe the five songs were, Bring It On Home by Led Zeppelin, Taking Care Of Business by BTO, Come As You Are by Nirvana, Cinnamon Girl by Neil Young. And for the life of me I can’t remember the fifth. But I think I have it on video somewhere so maybe someday I’ll- no probably not. But yeah I played bass guitar in that with some friends. There you go.
K: So then after high school, college?
H: So I went to William and Mary. I mostly applied to colleges in the north, in the northeast, but then it was just sort of one college I applied to in what I considered the south, and came down and visited it, and loved the campus, and loved the climate, and just sort of loved Virginia. So I went to William and Mary.
K: And what did you major in?
H: For most of my time there, I was a math major. And then I switched to be a psychology and sociology major.
K: And that’s what you earned your degree in?
H: Yes I have BA in Psychology and Sociology from William and Mary.
K: So where did the math, and I know you’ve taught history, factor in? Were those interests there in college or did they emerge later?
K: I mean the interest in math, obviously was there, but the history..?
H: Uh the math, well, I took hardly any history in college. No, I mean I’d say I was a good student in college, but I was more socially focused, you know? Academics was definitely second to me. I mean and I did well, I got good grades, and I was able to do that, often by cramming, to be honest, but I was more focused on social, having a good time, playing a lot of basketball and those sorts of things. I would say my academic interests probably were post college.
K: The time between then and now- there’s a lot that’s gone down. So I guess, professionally, what happened?
H: Yes, okay. So I graduated from college in 1996. From 1996 to 1998 I was a paralegal at a law firm in Washington DC. I lived with my friends in northern Virginia, in McClain. Actually McClain and then Alexandria, so I spent 2 years as a paralegal at a big lawfirm. Which was a great thing to do after college because it was all young people, all my same age, that I was exposed to. And it was a really good firm, Covington and Burling. It’s a pretty well renowned firm, so that was good experience. And made money. And so that was from 1996 to 1998. And then from 1998 to 2001 I went to law school, at UVa, which was fantastic. I loved it. It was a great place to be. I met my wife there; that’s the best thing that came out of law school. From 2001 to 2003 I was an attorney. I practiced law, mostly bankruptcy litigation, but also employment law, a few other cases, whatever needed. I was in a litigation department, so whatever needed to be done.
K: And where was that?
H: In Boston. Right, I lived in Boston for two years.
K: Boston is cool.
H: Is it. Not so cool in the winter.
K: I bet.
H: So I lived in Boston for two years, and then in 2003, my wife was a lawyer in New York, and I moved to New York to be with her. I did a program called the New York City teaching fellows, which is a career changer program. And I taught in NYC public schools for 2 years. That was challenging.
K: How did the decision come to switch professions?
H: After being in a big law firm for two years, it was just not fulfilled, and I was making excellent money but having no life. I mean, you spend all day and all evening, and you’re on call on the weekends, and it was just all-consuming. And I saw that the people who had been doing it for a while were not happy. They were consumed by work and stressed out, so I said that wasn’t for me. I went and did this career changer program and I’m so glad that I did.That was thirteen years ago; this is my thirteenth year teaching.
H: So yeah, the deal with the teaching fellows program was that you taught during the day and went to school at night, and got your masters. So what I would do is teach in Manhattan during the day, with my students. And then take the subway up to 125 street, take the crosstown bus and I went City College and got my masters. But they paid for it. They paid for the masters, and they gave me a bunch of classes, a bunch of credit. So it was limited, the work I had to do. And then it took me two years to do that and I had my masters in education by 2005.
K: And then did that bring you here?
H: And then my wife and I moved to Virginia in 2005. We both went to law school here and we loved Charlottesville, so we moved here. We got married before. My wife and I got married in 2004, at a courthouse, just me and her.
K: That’s nice.
H: It was. And then we moved here in 2005, my first son arrived in 2011, my second one in 2014, and here I am.
K: What’s it like being a parent?
H: Being a parent is, life changing- for both very good, and also hard. Having little kids is very hard. It’s harder than you think it’s going to be. Because to do it right, requires your full attention. It’s challenging because they’re little kids. But it’s also amazing because they’re little people. They’re your kids, you know? And you just can’t believe how much you love them. Because you don’t understand what it is to be selfless until you have kids. Or, that’s not true. You don’t have to have kids to understand selflessness, but it helped me to be more selfless.
K: And what are their names?
H: Their names are Greg, he’s my four year old, and Ryan is my one year old.
K: Very cool. What is your favorite thing about teaching?
H: That’s a good question. I would say my favorite thing about teaching, is getting kids to stretch themselves, to do things they didn’t think they could do. And that, that’s my favorite thing. At all levels, for any subject, having taught history and math, getting kids to do things that they didn’t think they could do, to stretch themselves intellectually.
K: And I think my last question, what is your favorite thing in this room? There’s a lot of interesting things in here.
H: What is my favorite thing in this room? Can I pick a few?
H: My number one favorite thing is my sons’ artwork. That’s Greg’s artwork hanging on the wall right there.If I’m ever feeling annoyed, it helps me take a deep breath and keep perspective. I would say my second favorite thing, is probably Jean Luc’s airplane.
K: It is very cool.
H: It’s pretty amazing. You know, just a student created a pretty amazing thing, I think. It’s something I couldn’t do, so I’m impressed by it. Those are my two favorite things: the things created by my sons and by my students.
K: There is some pretty cool stuff up in here.
H: Thank you.
K: Thank you so much for doing this.
H: Happy to do it.