One afternoon almost 40 years ago, my ninth grade geometry teacher, Mr. Miskell, stood in front of a chalkboard, paused, and then proceeded to change the world – making it a better place for me, forever.
This time of year, around Labor Day, with local schools gearing up for fall, my thoughts always turn to him, and the many other devoted teachers who helped shape me.
They’re particularly relevant musings given the national debate over education on which we can’t ever seem to reach some kind of consensus: Methods. Philosophies. Unions. Tenure. Testing. Politics.
For teachers like Mr. Miskell, those things weren’t consuming. What meant most were the rows of pupils before him, and the daunting task at hand.
Some years ago I had lost track of Mr. Miskell. And so it was as I researched a story on Cornell University’s alumni Website, an unforeseen obituary stunned me:
“’53, BME ‘54, MS ’65 – Terry F. Miskell of Freeport, Maine, September 11, 2005; mathematics teacher; veteran; pilot; active in community and alumni affairs.”
Everyone has that teacher who made a difference in more than just the classroom, and Mr. Miskell was mine. Trained as an engineer and having served as a Navy fighter pilot before turning to education, he had been a longtime stalwart in Boston-area schools.
When presented an opportunity to teach American students overseas – where I was a young U.S. expatriate – Mr. Miskell didn’t hesitate.
At the American Community Schools of Athens, Greece, he had previously taught my older sisters and was well known to me through their vignettes. So as a high school freshman, I was excited to be in his geometry class.
But all didn’t go as planned. For the first time in my life I experienced difficulty with math, struggling through the entire fall semester. I was too proud to request assistance, believing my instincts for the subject would suddenly return like a prodigal son seeking redemption.
Relenting after Christmas break, I sought out Mr. Miskell.
He had me meet him after school that same day. In his classroom, the first thing Mr. Miskell said was: “We don’t have much time, Telly, so let’s get to it.”
With blackboards on three walls, he strolled over to the first slate, picked up a piece of chalk, and for the next two hours put on a teaching clinic that salvaged my year, and perhaps much more.
Working his way around the room and using every inch of chalkboard, Mr. Miskell explained the continuum of mathematics, and how geometry fit in. Then he narrowed his dissertation to my specific weakness with logical proofs.
Once he identified how I might improve, Mr. Miskell tied my freshman problems back to the start of his lesson, with the greater picture of math.
His tone never wavered and his pace never faltered. I started taking notes but stopped halfway through; I didn’t need them. Like the last piece falling into a puzzle, everything Mr. Miskell said painted a complete picture.
Behind my grin I felt stupid having never asked him for help. When he finally put down the chalk, Mr. Miskell turned and smiled confidently, saying: “Telly, I think you’ll be just fine.”
Walking out into that January evening of 1975, I had no doubt I would ace the semester’s class, which I did.
But I was happiest when visiting Mr. Miskell’s homeroom during my free periods. Leaning forward in a front row seat, I soaked up his tales of past glory flying Navy jets, and of his current aviation pride and joy, a Piper Cub back home in New England.
When not previewing topics for a future class, Mr. Miskell seemed content to lose himself in azure dreams, and I was his wingman for every flight.
This, I learned, was how teachers make a difference: in the trenches, one student at a time. I was lucky to have many such mentors while growing up; in my memories of Mr. Miskell, I find the best of them all.
Seven years after that vital tutorial and half a world away, I gripped the college diploma containing my own engineering degree, and recalled our times together.
Dodging the graduation day crowds with family in tow, what I didn’t know was Mr. Miskell had driven from Boston to New York to witness my milestone, as if seeing his job through to its successful completion.
As I grew older, we drifted apart, and my own career and family life left me “too busy” to stay in touch regularly. As such, even today, my guilt at failing to reconnect with him is surpassed only by continued disbelief that Mr. Miskell was in his 70s when cancer finally overwhelmed him.
To me, he’ll remain frozen in his mid-40s, younger than I am now. I always believed we would run into each other every few years. Yet even in death, Mr. Miskell had solved that equation:
Time, as he had noted before marking the first blackboard, is always working against us.
The late Terry F. Miskell of Freeport, a man with four academic degrees, a devoted wife and three wonderful children, gave me more on that winter afternoon than I could ever repay. And that, in my humble estimation, is what a teacher should do.
When my thoughts turn to him now, I see all the writing on those blackboards, and an eraser clasped in his one hand, still dusty with the remnants of youth.
I also see a lone Navy jet peeling off the deck of an aircraft carrier and banking into that sapphire mist where sea meets sky, its chalk-like vapor trail sketching an arc even Euclid could love.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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