Since I teach math, I have had many students over the years tell me that I was one of their favorite teachers, despite the fact that they hate math, or they are bad at math (they think), or both. I know that feeling well, although as a student, math was never the class I hated.
I recently saw a post, on the Facebook group for alumni of the high school I went to, saying that a former physical education teacher and coach had passed away. I’ll call him Mr. F. I saw him much the way that the students in my classes whom I described above see me: I hated PE. I was never very good at running or lifting or any physical activity. But I loved Mr. F as a teacher, mostly because he was really funny. Sometimes he would say things completely unexpected out of nowhere. One time, I told him, quietly, nervously that my stomach hurt and asked if I could use the bathroom before we started running or doing whatever we were doing that day. He pointed toward the bathroom and said, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Yeah! Go take a big sh**!” I have not stayed in touch with Mr. F, I haven’t seen him since I finished high school, and I don’t know anything about his passing other than someone on this post mentioned cancer.
But when I saw that he passed away, this was not the story I shared on that post.
In the summer of 1991, right after the year I had Mr. F’s PE class, I worked out in the weight room with the football team. A lot of my friends told me I should play football, mostly because of how I was built. But I was not an athlete. I liked to eat too much, and I did not like to run. But football players were the cool kids, you know how high school stereotypes are, so I worked out with the football team nevertheless.
There was another problem, though: I didn’t really understand football. I understood the basics, touchdowns, field goals, first downs, and such. So in addition to working out all summer, I solved this other problem the only way I knew how: I did my research. I did a lot of reading that summer about football. I learned about football rules, the roles of the different positions on the field, different types of plays, strategies, and the history of American football. And when the first day of double practices came, just after my 15th birthday, I was ready.
No, I wasn’t. Who am I kidding…
I was in the locker room getting ready that morning, and I saw Mr. F. I had not seen him all summer, and I wasn’t sure if he knew that I was going to try out for football. He seemed happy to see me, and he asked how I was doing. I said that I was nervous, and that it looked like practice today was going to be tough. “But you know what?” he replied. “You’re tough.” It really meant something to me that he believed in me, despite the fact that I could never run very fast or do a pull-up in his class the year before.
My football career lasted one day. I lasted that morning and that afternoon, and I didn’t come back. I was in way over my head. I was badly out of shape. But something positive did come out of that experience in the end. It took a few months for me to get over the disappointment of not being good enough to play football, of letting down Mr. F and all my friends who encouraged me to play. But by the time the following football season started, in the fall of 1992, I enjoyed watching football much more than I ever had in the past. The time I spent learning more about the game helped me enjoy watching it much more, and this has stayed with me to this day.
It’s okay that I couldn’t handle football, and that I wasn’t very fast or strong in Mr. F’s PE class. Not everyone is an athlete. But I still found inspiration from Mr. F.
And it’s okay that some of the students in my class did not understand everything I attempted to teach them. Not everyone is a mathematician. But my students can still find inspiration from my class.