Almost no one works in the same business for 48 years anymore, especially a business they once disliked. But for Olga Math, being a teacher and counselor for nearly five decades was the perfect antidote for a child who hated school.
“I never liked school,” she says. “If you looked at my high school and college transcript, you would ask how this kid even get into college. But when I was doing what I wanted to do in grad school, I only made one B.”
The Victoria native retired this year from her counseling position at East Dallas’ Woodrow Wilson High after working in education for 48 years, 47 of them in Dallas ISD.
In 1976, Math was teaching at Greiner Middle School in Oak Cliff when the court-ordered desegregation caused students to be bussed all over town, rarely without conflict. Greiner was already an Exploratory Arts school at the time, so it was a mix of students from all over Dallas. She didn’t see much of the violence and protests that were present in many of the high schools during desegregation.
Math taught at a time when the area just north of downtown was transitioning from being known as Little Mexico. “Many were moving to the Oak Cliff area, but Sunset and Adamson high schools still had white population at that time,” she says. “There wasn’t white flight until the late ’70s from Oak Cliff.”
“At that time there was what was called M and M transfers,” she says. “If a student was in the majority race at her school, she could transfer to a school where she would be a minority.”
This mixing of students was beneficial for Greiner in the ’70s. “Many of our class officers and athletes came in through that system,” said Math.
Though much of the animosity that existed between races wasn’t felt at Greiner, the school was not without discrimination. There was more conflict between generations of Hispanic immigrants than between the races, Math remembers. The most ethnic conflict came between Hispanic students who were born in the US and those who had just immigrated. “It was about being the low man on the totem pole,” she says.
Math went to get her counseling degree when she was tasked with a particularly tough group of students, known as status offenders. This means that they had committed crimes that were illegal because of their age, such as being truant or drinking alcohol.
“I needed more knowledge than I had to work with troubled kids. I never intended to become a counselor,” she says.
Though she enjoyed teaching, she was asked to be a counselor at a different school. Math was hesitant to leave Greiner, but after a visit to a fortune-teller, she was told, “a building is a building and people are a people.” To her this meant that she would be doing good wherever she was, and that she should respond to the call.
Often the best counselors are the ones who have struggled in the same way as those they counsel. For Math, that seems to be a fitting truth. “I know what it was like to make yourself invisible because you didn’t do your homework.”
Her counseling career led he to Sunset High School, where her former students remember her influence. “I remember her passion and enthusiasm to get these kids educated,” says Joe May, who went to both Greiner and Sunset. “She was always one of those people that I credit as far as motivating me and seeing me push through.”
May and his wife have started to work towards establishing an annual scholarship in Math’s name, working with other Sunset graduates to help the students who aren’t getting as much attention. “I always wanted to go back and do something for the students, and wanted to concentrate on the kids that aren’t on the radar, the C students,” he says. “I am doing something about that and not just standing by.”
In almost five decades of teaching, much has changed. Math is critical of how little actual counseling school counselors get to do these days. She said they mostly work on schedules and deal with counting credits. She also laments the focus on testing, and wants teachers to be able to teach without administrative pressure to zero in on the test.
With all the changes, she retains her optimism towards kids. Through tears, she says, “I never met a kid that didn’t want to do well. I never met a kid that woke up and said, ‘I want to get up and go to school today and I am going to get in trouble.’ The constant is the good in kids, and that that is what I am going to miss.”