BY KARL MEALOR
My high school math teacher died this weekend.
In my mind he was larger than life. Relatively short, but hugely muscular with a buzz cut that never went out of style.
Urban legends about him abound. But they’re all true:
• pull-ups on his classroom door frame using only his fingertips
• pole-vaulting on his 60th birthday
• rope climbing to the top of the gym using only his arms
• sleeping only four hours a night
He taught high school math for 50 years. That’s not a typo. Named STAR teacher 28 times. Was also a highly successful track and wrestling coach, and athletic director.
Not a day goes by I don’t use something he taught me. And I’m not talking about math.
Here’s the first 10 that come to mind…
1. Sweat the small stuff.
He didn’t give partial credit. By the time we were in calculus, the work for problems could run several pages. Didn’t matter how close you were to the correct answer. If it was wrong it was wrong. (He did curve based on how well you did relative to your classmates.) He used this phrase of “blowing up the rocket ship.” i.e., if the calculations for how much fuel goes into the rocket are wrong, it explodes.
I don’t subscribe to this method as a teacher because a) I’d never get away with it, and b) it runs counter to my own teaching philosophy.
But I thought about Coach Keen when I heard about the Hubble telescope’s near-sightedness. When the Challenger and Columbia exploded. When the Mars probe missed Mars because someone forgot their English/metric conversions.
When experts miserably fail to accurately predict elections and pandemics.
And I always double-check my math.
2. Compete against yourself.
I ran track for a couple of years. My nickname was apparently “that really tall slow kid.” Well-deserved.
Coach Keen never cared how we placed in a meet. He only cared, and taught us to care, on improving our time, distance, or height cleared. Before every meet, in a team meeting, we would review our personal best and predict how well we were going to do in the upcoming one. He would adjust our expectations if they were too lofty, but always expected at least a small step forward. After the meet, he would publicly review how well we did.
I was by far the least physically gifted member of the team. But he acknowledged my improvements as much as he acknowledged those who set new school records and brought glory and honor to the Dragon nation.
Every day, I still want to get 1% better in areas that matter. As a husband, father, friend, teacher. Get just a little better than I was yesterday.
3. Words matter.
He wasn’t one for loose compliments. Or loose criticism.
Decades later, I honestly believe I can recall every single time he said something positive to me or about me. And every single time he, I’ll say this politely, persuaded me of a better way.
I also remember how those words made me feel.
Need to remember that as I’m speaking to my own students.
4. Self-esteem is a myth…unless you’ve earned it.
Coach Keen was a self-esteem denier.
At a sports banquet, the girls’ basketball coach handed out all manner of trophies for best offense, best defense, best bench player, etc. Took about 30 minutes to do so. Coach Keen, the wrestling coach, stood up and recognized just a few (maybe only two or three?) wrestlers for state championships. Then sat down.
The girls basketball coach somewhat sarcastically said, “That’s it?”
Coach Keen: “We give out state championships, not trophies.”
He certainly opposed those “participation trophies.” Don’t try to make everyone feel better. Try to make everyone successful at something difficult. Then they’ll feel better.
5. Why is more important than how.
He taught less content in a year than most in those glorious days before end-of-course testing. He spent more time helping us understand WHY the math worked as opposed to blindly memorizing procedures.
He taught us to think like mathematicians.
When I got to college, it honestly felt like a superpower.
6. Life is easier when you’re a legend.
I still remember the janitor showing up at our classroom to get Coach Keen’s wristwatch. So he could set the school’s bells to the watch.
He carried about four pounds of keys around everywhere. I’m certain there was a key to every lock in the school system. Heck, he may have had a key to my house. Was never locked out.
Both of my sisters had him before me. I was pre-scared of him. Pre-respectful. Pre-awed.
There were battles already won before students ever stepped in his classroom for the first time. He never had a discipline problem. Rumors circulate that he would be absent for wrestling tournaments and wouldn’t get a sub. Simply told students what they were to do while he was gone. They did it. Not saying it happened, but I’m saying it COULD have happened.
The kind of respect only earned over decades and decades of consistent excellence.
7. Figure out how everyone is motivated.
I made an A on my first test in his Algebra II class. The second test didn’t go nearly as well. Maybe a C. Maybe…
He paused at my desk before handing me the paper.
“After the last test, I thought you were going to be as good a math student as your sister. After this test, I can see that’s not going to be the case.”
Dropped the test on my desk and walked away.
Now, I’m not recommending this as pedagogy. In this day and age, this sort of thing could lead to multiple uncomfortable parent/admin conferences, viral TikTok videos and possible appearances on CNN.
But that day, Coach Keen lit. A. Fire.
Could be the reason I’ve had moderate success as a math student and teacher over the subsequent 35 years. Still trying to prove him wrong.
It wouldn’t have worked on everyone, but it sure as heck worked on me.
(Mom, before you get too upset, he more than made up for this in our last conversation a few years ago.)
8. Most battles are won in the mind first.
In distance races, he taught us the toughest part was at the halfway point. In a four-lap race, you face your biggest mental challenge as soon as you finish the second lap. Your mind thinks, “I have to do what I just did again. There’s no way.” Your body tends to slow down about that point because of discouragement.
He prepared us for the toughest part. And challenged our manhood in the process. Slowing down on the third lap would have brought shame and dishonor on our entire family.
“If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small.” Almost biblical.
9. True success is helping others be successful.
In John Grisham’s book Bleachers, Nate Crenshaw delivers a eulogy for his former football coach, Eddie Rake. Though sometimes controversial, the coach led the local high school team to multiple state championships and prepared many young men for life’s difficulties. Crenshaw says Rake brought the town and people along with him to so that they could get a little taste of greatness.
Coach Keen helped many a student and athlete and fan get a little taste of greatness.
State championships, trophies and medals. Scholarships, degrees, businesses, and careers. Families.
He wasn’t the hero of the story. He was the guide who showed the rest of us how to be heroes.
10. Leave a legacy.
I’ve taught long enough to see some of my students become math teachers. In at least one case, one of those has a student who has become a math teacher. So I have mathematical grandchildren. And they never visit…
But it does make one reflect on the impact of compounded influence.
In my own classroom this year, I’ll use some of the same phraseology as my high school math teacher. I’ll talk about blowing up rocket ships. About crazy people in the basement (rationalizing denominators). And the rising tide of mediocrity.
Around the world, multiple students who will never hear Coach Keen’s name will reap the benefits of seeds he planted decades ago. Athletes will compete against their personal bests. Business owners, politicians, community leaders will keep going despite the adversity we’re facing at the half-way point of 2020.
For 50 years, he modeled excellence and taught lessons which are passed down and spread to uncountable others.
We can’t impact one person’s life without impacting generations.
Forgive me if I’ve been a bit too sentimental, but these are just a few of the things he taught me. I also learned some math.
Please join me in praying God’s comfort for his family, friends, and those he mentored in the days ahead.