Teachers and Teaching

A Graduate of Harvard Law School Who Became an Algebra Teacher Addresses the Class of 2015

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Ohio Algebra II Teacher, a regular commentator on the blog, wrote the following wonderful speech to the graduating class at Madeira High School.



As a Harvard-educated public school teacher, I’ll paste in my speech to graduating seniors from last week. I’ll also note that I wouldn’t have become a teacher had I known what was coming.



Superintendent Kramer, Assistant Superintendent Matsudo, Mr. Olson, Mr. Kimling, President Gelis, Graduates-in-waiting for the Class of 2015,



Last month I attended my 20th Class Reunion at Harvard Law School. Just another event that lets you know you’re getting older and time is passing quickly. When you attend something like this, you can’t help but reflect and assess where you stand among your peers. The boy I played squash and poker with is the junior Senator from Texas and is running for President of the United States. The guy who put me in his makeshift home movie wrote the screenplay for “Precious” and won an Academy Award. Every one of my best friends from law school is making seven figures a year in exciting cities like New York, Washington DC, and Atlanta, and another one of my friends started an internet company that landed him in Forbes Magazine of richest people in the world. Everyone around me is rising, rising, rising. Meanwhile, I look in the mirror every morning and find myself exactly where I was 18 years ago…right here…teaching at Madeira High School.



Now it’s not like nothing has changed. Physically, I’m a little slower and weaker than when I arrived in the 90’s. The hair’s a little thinner, a little grayer, and there’s been an ever-so-slight deterioration of my natural good looks. Mentally, I tire a little more easily. I can’t do math in my head as well. I occasionally forget things, sometimes forgetting what I’ve forgotten. And I’m not even that old! I look to my more experienced friends in administration and…just teasing Mr. Olson!…But I have to believe what we lose in physical strength and mental sharpness, we make up for in wisdom.



The last time I spoke at Baccalaureate in 2007, I spoke about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay called “Compensation.” In this essay, Emerson spoke of the fact that for every loss you suffer, there is an equal and opposite gain – you just have to find it. I have been fascinated by this idea over the years, and I have found it to be true. So often disappointment is followed by fulfillment, defeat is followed by glory, pain is followed by a healing leaving you stronger than you ever were before.



I have always marveled at Helen Keller. This deaf, mute, and blind woman was one of the most brilliant philosophers our world has ever seen. Would she have had such insight had she been “normal” and “just like you and me?” Helen Keller is the model of compensation – someone who found the equal and opposite benefit associated with loss.



And compensation is all around us. Your class has shown me dozens of examples. Our terrific musicians and singers, our wonderful actors and artists, our award winning students in so many competitions including the state Latin convention, Budget Challenge, Cincinnati Academic League Tournament Champion Academic Team, and our National Champion Jets Squad, but the coach in me gravitates to the athletic field. I first met Toni Alloy when she moved to Madeira in junior high school and attended my soccer camp. I instantly knew that Toni was my kind of player – a combination of streetball meets master tactician – and I’ve loved watching her play both soccer and basketball in high school. When Toni was seriously injured last fall, my heart bled for her. I can remember in high school when I was injured and how much it upset me. You still root for the team, but there’s a tiny part of you that hopes that the team misses your presence. Toni refused to let the setback affect her attitude or her spirit. She vocally supported her teammates. When the team had big wins without her on the field, no one was more celebratory. Toni rehabbed behind the scenes, and somehow managed to return to action. Even at less than 100%, from central midfield, along with her fantastic senior teammates and Coach Brady, she was able to help lead our Zons to another District championship. Toni may have moved here, but from the classroom to the athletic field, she represents everything that is great at Madeira.



Kyle Rizzuto was the one member of the Varsity basketball team short enough that I can look at him eye-to-eye. For years Kyle worked on his ballhandling, passing, fitness, defense, and shooting to be able to compete well with players much bigger than he is, and his efforts were rewarded when he earned the starting point guard position. The team was doing well – much better than preseason expectations – but Coach Reynolds believed the team could be even better if Kyle would be available to give the team a spark off the bench. Being replaced in the starting line-up is difficult for anybody. Now, add in the fact that Kyle was replaced by a freshman. The situation could have easily shattered the team, and I’m sure it would have if the individual involved was someone with less maturity and less character. Not only did Kyle accept his new role with the same energy that he attacks all challenges, but he did everything in his power to help his freshman replacement thrive. I can remember when I was a freshman soccer player doing whatever I could to both survive and make a positive impression on the coach. I vividly remember the senior who tripped me in the middle of one of my sprints because I was trying too hard. I also remember well the senior who told me I could make it. Kyle, the consistent overachievement of your teams began with your example. At one of the best athletic small schools in the state, I want to congratulate you on being named the outstanding senior boy athlete. I salute you for your leadership, and I want you to know that your example will live on in future Mustangs.



One of those future Mustangs is second-grader Will Unger. I’m not sure there is a bigger Madeira fan than Will. Will’s favorite team this year, of course, was our awesome Madeira Amazons basketball team. I can’t tell you how many times he’s made me play Kline v. Kline on our front yard basketball hoop (he was always Celia, but don’t worry Mallory, I played lockdown defense on him). But Will’s imagination was also captured by a less publicized winter sport. On Friday, February 27th, four members of our school…including two of our outstanding seniors, Ryan Stephenson and Jack Mantkowski, competed in the Ohio swimming state championships. Thousands of laps, countless strokes, endless practices before school and late at night resulted in a number of dominating performances. Will and I saw these awesome competitors triumph multiple times in the District meet, and he peppered me with question after question about the swimmers who could become the first boy state champions at Madeira in over a decade. During the state meet, we were glued to our internet as the live results came in. In the 200-yard medley relay, we placed 5th. In the 200-yard freestyle relay, we placed 5th again. The final event of the meet was the 400-yard freestyle relay. With one lap remaining, our boys were in the lead. Coming down the stretch, we were stroke for stroke with Seven Hills. At the wall, it was impossible to see which team had won…but the electronic timer showed we had come in second place…by 5 hundredths of a second. Five hundredths of a second! 16 laps and 400 yards came down to the length of a knuckle. If the race is 1 yard shorter or 1 yard longer…we win. What possible compensation could come from this heartbreaking result?



The situation brought me back to one of my favorite soccer players on one of my favorite soccer teams. In 2006, I had a senior, Nate Ervin Class of 2007, a back-up who – despite battling a knee injury his entire career – did everything a coach ask for. His example raised the level of more talented teammates, and he became a legitimately strong substitute forward for our team. With twelve seconds remaining in the State Semifinals, our boys had valiantly fought to a one-one score against the #1 ranked team in the state, and it looked like we were heading to overtime when a ball flew out of bounds by our bench. Nate easily could have let the ball roll harmlessly to the fence. Instead, he made the sporting gesture of retrieving the ball for Worthington Christian. Our opponents took advantage of the situation by scoring a dramatic last-second game-winning goal and three days later followed up by winning the State Championship. To lose that way was shocking. Just like that, I was no longer coaching the most overachieving group of seniors I’d ever had the privilege of coaching. Needless to say, Nate was devastated. A few months later, I received a letter from the parent of a Worthington Christian player. In it, he wrote: “On watching the videotape of our winning goal against you, we were stunned to see that one of your players got the ball for us on the sideline. It was a class act by a class team. Through the years, we’ve learned that Madeira players show great respect for their opponents and great respect for the game.” The defeat was gut-wrenching, but what an unbelievable compliment this was to my player. As I told the boys after the game, you should never have to apologize for acting with decency and honor. That game and that moment were among my proudest as a coach.



I left law to become a teacher and a coach. I can say with complete honesty, that it kills me to be away from coaching. I want to thank the senior boys soccer players for making me feel as much a part of things as they possibly could. In the best programs, tradition never graduates, and thanks to you, it doesn’t retire, either. The greatest compensation I’ve had as a retired coach has been the opportunity to spend more time with my son. But, boy, does he wear me out with his questions. As I mentioned earlier, he couldn’t ask enough about our swimmers. And what could I tell him about Jack and Ryan? Both are outstanding students. Both are super citizens. Both are great friends to many. And, like so many of you, they are shining examples of this incredible class from this wonderful school. Was Ryan and Jack’s effort diminished by coming 1 inch short of their ultimate goal? The longer I coached, the more I understood Kipling’s famous quote: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.” Through the years I’ve learned that in the end, competition and participation is not about the glory, the wins, trophies, banners, or titles. Rather, it’s about the created memories, the character developed, the stories shared, and the relationships forged during a pursuit of excellence. As I told Nate Ervin back in 2006, if my son could grow up to be like Ryan Stephenson and Jack Mantkowski, I’d be a very proud father.



Over the past four years, I’ve read my fair share of books. I’ll read just about anything, but my favorite books are biographies and autobiographies of great men and women. I read these books in the hopes that I can learn from these people. Some common lessons have come through. Nearly every successful person I have read about has had a period in their lives where they were down and out, periods of terrible frustration, periods where they made horrendous mistakes, periods of desperation where achievement seemed beyond reach. Thomas Edison had over 10,000 failed experiments before he finally invented the light bulb. One of my favorite coaches, Joe Torre, set a Major League Baseball record for having the longest career as a player and manager without ever reaching the World Series. That was before he managed the New York Yankees to four World Series titles in five years. Anne Sullivan was Helen Keller’s phenomenal teacher. After being taken for granted and stymied by Helen’s parents, Ms. Sullivan, who was legally blind herself, became so depressed with her situation that she nearly left the Keller household in disgust before seeing even a fraction of what was to become Helen’s miraculous progress. Abraham Lincoln lived through “many days which tried men’s souls” before bringing a conclusion to the Civil War which ended slavery and saved the United States of America.



A common theme among nearly every great person who ever lived is that they were able to hang on just a little longer where other people may very well have given up. They were able to find the positive aspects of negative situations. They were able to demonstrate an understanding of Emerson’s compensation.



Understanding compensation and reaping its benefits largely comes down to your attitude. Will you be the type who wallows in self-pity? Will you be the one who always sees the sky falling? Or will you be the one who sees the silver lining in every dark cloud? And will you be the one who anticipates the sun coming up tomorrow?



As you move into your futures, I am not going to wish you a fairy-tale life where you live happily ever after. I am not going to wish you a road without bumps and dead ends and obstacles. I am not going to wish you a world without hardship. Instead, I am going to wish you the strength to persevere when everything around you is falling apart. I am going to wish you the ability to rise from the ashes and bounce back stronger than ever when it seems like nothing is going your way. I am going to wish you the faith, wisdom, and guidance to overcome all which comes to you, to find the silver lining in every cloud, to find the compensation in every loss. Vince Lombardi, the famous football coach, put it well when he said: “The glory is not in never falling down. The glory is in fighting to get up every time you do get knocked down.” Another writer said this thought in a different way which I have always found inspiring: “Only when the sky is darkest can I see the stars.”



Yes, my friends from Harvard are garnering fame, fortune, and power. They can order meals at the fanciest restaurants in the world, while I get to jostle with you in our cafeteria lunch line. They can pay for all the hired help they could ever need ten times over, but they can’t get the gratification I feel when students like Colin Voisard or Franny Barone or Madeline Gelis and many others are ready and able to help me with the cheapest of labor when I need help running a dodgeball tournament or keeping my son occupied during a basketball game. They get interviewed by the New York Times and Oprah, while I get interviewed by Bianca and “What’s up, Madeira?” You don’t become a teacher for the fame or the money. And I’ve got a news flash for all those educational policy experts in Columbus and Washington D.C. You don’t become a teacher to raise a student’s math score three points on a test. I didn’t enjoy the great company of Patrick Miller and Julie Yeomans nearly every day after school last year for them to become nuclear physicists but to learn that with extra effort they could do better than they every believed they could. I didn’t treasure Theodore Graeter’s otherworldly class participation in the hopes he might uncover some unknown theorem but to further develop his one-of-a kind personality. I had no illusions that making my good friend Marc Puma spend time on Khan Academy during all vacations to raise his otherwise unacceptable grades would lead to a Nobel Prize in Mathematics. Now, Jack Good, on the other hand… Like every teacher at this tremendous school, I became a teacher for many reasons. Maybe the biggest reason I became a teacher was to help my students dream just a little bit bigger, and to have just a little more confidence when pursuing those dreams and just a little more ability to achieve them. I am proud of my famous and successful friends, but I am just as proud of being a small part of your achievements. I look forward to many more of your success stories, and I look forward to sharing those stories with William Jason Unger, Madeira High School Class of 2025. It has been a privilege teaching you and an honor speaking to you tonight. I wish congratulations and Godspeed to the Madeira High School Class of 2015.


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