Stories of a teacher impacting a student in inspirational ways are not uncommon. But they are always special.
Before I tell mine, I need to tell what happened leading up to it. My brothers and I changed schools my third grade year, from private to public. It was a tough transition for us, as school change often is. New friends, new teachers, new culture and all that. I struggled. I had one teacher, Mrs. Rachel Yates, who made me feel special. But most of the year deflated me. My fourth grade year was better and to this day I owe another teacher, Mrs. Cheryl Floyd, greatly. She taught me well, genuinely cared for me, and laid a foundation what was yet to come.
My fifth grade year, however, was a total disaster. Regrettably, I hung around the wrong crowd, had terrible grades, and I was in the vice-principal’s office often. I know that year was a strain for my parents, who raised me better than that.
Sixth grade brought another a big transition, from elementary to middle school. This was not only a change in building and location, but again in culture. My mental state was already a mess going into the year and those things just wrecked me. I felt lost and confused. I had no confidence, no direction and no joy. The day our first 4.5 week interim reports came out, I was so stressed by how bad I knew my grades were going to be, I actually ran away from school. The principal had to then chase me down in his car, take me back and call my mom to come get me. My parents were at their wits’ end. Later in that same year, after my grades didn’t pick up, my dad actually took me out of school one day to work on the farm.
I cannot pinpoint any one specific moment where it all turned around, but I can point precisely to one classroom: Ms. Nancy’s math class. In other classes and in other places I had heard about her. She was famous and, to some, infamous. I overheard one of the student leaders in the high school talking about her one day in shop class and he said, “You may not like her, but you WILL learn some math.” As a result, I was intimidated going in. Yet she proved over the span of three years that she was not about scaring middle school kids; she was about educating them, even if it meant not being liked.
Her teaching methods were as unforgettable as they were effective. Imitating Winston Churchill’s speech about keeping the fight against Hitler, she taught us to, “Never! Never divide with a decimal in your divisor!” And completed the effect by adding, “Never! Never! Never!” She taught us how to balance and solve equations with “Throw it across the fence and change the sign”. And to a beat we learned, “To divide, you-multiply-by-the-reciprocal-of-the-divisor.” I guarantee the vast majority of the students who sat under her at East Clarendon Middle School can still hear her voice saying those things even to today. I know I can.
Yet she offered far more than a series of clever phrases to remember for a test. She sacrificed greatly for our education. My eight grade year, about 20 students qualified to take Algebra I instead of 8th Grade Math. The material was deeply involved and most in the class were completely engrossed. And she saw so much potential in the room, she gave up her one free period to tutor the entire class. Furthermore, she was tough about it. The extra class was not required and a couple of the guys decided to skip it and go and lounge in study hall. So she went upstairs, retrieved them and brought them down to class. They sneered about it, but I guarantee they learned some math.
Additionally, she taught to the whole person. For instance, one day she sensed a conflict between some members of the class and she taught us Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath”. She was a constant source of encouragement, not only in math class, but when I played basketball and struggled to get playing time. She showed compassion on bad days. I loved being in her classroom.
And for me, this made all the difference in the world. As I slowly began to find success in her class, I found my confidence growing. For the first time in years, I felt like I was good at something academically. At first, math was the only class I saw improvement. But what she instilled in me overflowed to other subjects. By the time I finished 8th grade, I was making the honor roll every semester and I was the only person in my class to be named a Junior Scholar for my score on the PSAT. From that, I also won the “Ms. Nancy McFaddin Award” (I told you she was famous) for my math score on that test.
As I went on to high school, she handed me off to one of her elite proteges, Mr. Wendell Robinson. And as my high school math teacher, he kept Ms. Nancy’s legacy going by mentoring me in a way that honored her. As a result, worlds of opportunity opened up for me: Math Team, Academic Challenge, Scholarships, AP Calculus and CLEP credit. I saved a ton of money on college simply by excelling at math. And I loved my high school experience in large part for this reason. I knew who I was. I had meaning. Without a doubt, my academic success helped me be comfortable in my own skin. I knew where I fit and exuded joy. And it all goes back to Ms. Nancy.
I should add that by speaking to my accomplishments, I do not intend to brag, for two reasons. One, I believe true humility in the Bible is not being self-degrading, but being honest. John the Baptist said, “A man can receive only what is given him from Heaven”. I was gifted at math, but only because God gave me the gift. To deny I was good would be a lie, and dishonoring to the God who granted me the knowledge and skill. But secondly, I don’t brag because in and of myself I was a failure at school. Mrs. Nancy is the one who deserves the boasts, as she inspired a complete 180 in my academic life. Without a doubt, she’s the greatest teacher I’ve ever had.
I’m 42 now, a Bible College graduate and a pastor. And if I’m being honest, I feel a pang of guilt about this being where I ended up vocationally. Because when I was in 8th grade, Ms. Nancy predicted I’d become an engineer. Nevertheless, I know she has no regrets and I really do not, either. Just the faith and confidence she placed in me when I was 11 years old is enough. It completely revolutionized my life. And therefore, what she did deserves to be told and given tribute.
As so many teacher stories do.