the cool teacher

Exit 123. You’re tough.

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.

Exit 39. Hearing her story really put my own life in perspective.

As I believe I’ve explained before, by some quirk of fate I’ve become The Cool Teacher to some of the kids at my school.  A group of my students likes to sit in my room after school to work on homework, or sometimes just to hang out and play games on their phones.  In the last month or so, some of their friends who are not in my class have been joining them.  Most of this group came from the same elementary school, so they have known each other for many years.

A few days ago, the usual group was there, and a new girl (new to the group, and not in my class, but not new to the school; she came from the same elementary school as most of the regulars) was with them.  I’ll give her the astrocode “Alpheratz.”  While they were there, they were talking about how Alpheratz has a key to ride the elevator.  The only students who are allowed to ride the elevator are the ones who can’t climb stairs for medical reasons, so I figured that she probably had a sprained ankle or something.  I hadn’t noticed any blatantly visible reason why Alpheratz couldn’t climb stairs.  “Why do you have an elevator key?” I asked, expecting a routine explanation like a sprained ankle.

“Cancer,” she replied, as matter-of-factly as it is possible to say that word.

“What?” I said.  I knew I had heard right, but it was totally not the answer I was expecting.

Alpheratz then went on to explain how she had started getting headaches as a kid and had been dealing with a brain tumor off and on since the beginning of elementary school.  Her friend who was in my class started talking about all the fundraisers they held for her and her family when they were going through this.  About half an hour later, when the kids were leaving my classroom, Alpheratz came over to my desk with a piece of paper and said, “Here.  This is for you.”  She had written two pages for me to read about her family, her condition, the surgery she had in first grade, and all the pills she has to take now.  (I won’t go into any greater detail about that, because it’s not my story to tell.)  And because of this, she has problems with balance and can’t climb stairs.

What struck me the most about all this was her positive attitude.  She didn’t hesitate at all sharing all this with me, and I had just met her an hour earlier.  Hearing her story really put my own life in perspective.  This girl has been dealing with this since first grade.  It’s pretty much the only life she knows.  And no one knows what will happen to her in the future.  But all she can do is keep on doing the best she can.  If I had been in her situation, I don’t think I could be so happy and positive and open about all this.  I’d be complaining about life not being fair, and I’d probably be really angry.  I’ve been in some irritable moods lately, but none of it has anything to do with the excruciating pain and uncertain future that Alpheratz must be going through.

Like I said last week, sometimes I just need to make do the best I can with what I have instead of complaining about things not being the way I want.  Alpheratz is a perfect example of this.  She was dealt a hand that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and you would never know it just from seeing how she acts around her friends.  I want to remember how much I do have.  I’m relatively healthy, and I can climb stairs.  I have so much to be thankful for.  And I really hope this girl is okay and that she makes it, so she can go on to inspire others.