Almost exactly ten years ago I wrote the following in a public diary, challenging others to talk about people who had been a source of inspiration. Mr. Francis was my 8th Grade math teacher, and really showed me that I could actually achieve if I wanted something bad enough. All my life I had been told I was poorly skilled at math, but Mr. Francis saw something different. He was my inspiration for going to college, and in no small part responsible for the man I am today.

Have you let the people who are/were inspirational to you know how much you appreciate their guidance?

Since I can remember, I enjoyed counting. Numbers had some measure of fascination for me, and I found I could manipulate them without great difficulty. Through elementary school however, I realize now I wasn’t being challenged in that particular area, and so became lazy, getting B’s, which suited me just fine. By the time Middle School (grades 7 and 8) rolled around, many of my friends were in the advanced math class (Algebra) while I was in the ’standard’ pre-algebraic class.

Cue Mr. Francis. An ex-PE teacher and Water Polo coach, he taught Mathematics during the school year and taught celebrities how to scuba dive in the summer. Late to class? Do pushups. Mouthed off in class? Take a lap around the campus. Didn’t do the homework? Do the assignment in its entirety on the back board. He was heavy-handed, but very fair, and had a great sense of humor that resonated well with most of the classes. He and I instantly hit it off and I looked forward to the class, even though it, as those before, wasn’t challenging in the slightest.

Spending several afternoons a week helping other students with their homework (he had an after-school math lab, and this was before I played Water Polo in the afternoons), I asked him if I could take a look at the Algebra textbook, as I was inclined to take the class in the summer so I could spend my high school years with my friends in the ’advanced’ math classes. Agreeing, he let me take the book home. I remember remarking that it didn’t look too difficult, and after a few days, asked if I could see what one of their tests looked like. Taking the test, I handed it back in and thought nothing more of it until the next morning.

In addition to passing back the homework, he passed back my test – out of fifty problems I had only missed one, an that was from a silly addition mistake. ”Want to try the next chapter?” he offered. Taking the challenge, I started reading through the Algebra book in addition to doing my normal pre-Algebra homework. Soon chapter test after chapter test fell beneath my mighty pencil, almost one a week, at which point he had me start to work on the type of homework problems they had done as well. Though my workload had increased, it wasn’t terribly difficult, I remember.

One day, he handed me not a chapter test, but a class transfer slip. I was being moved into the Algebra class. I was slightly confused, still being two chapters behind (I was just learning about solving for two variables – exciting stuff when you’re 14), but he assured me I would be able to pick it up. The next Monday I sat in my new class, working on two chapters simultaneously until I caught up. Final grade for Algebra? A. Even through high school, I helped Mr. Francis with after-school tutoring, and was surprised to discover that, in my senior year, I was taking more advanced math classes than Mr. Francis ever had. Whenever I had free time due to practice being canceled, or staying away due to injury, I made sure to swing by his classroom and help out.

Some years later, I had heard that Mr. Francis was finally retiring. In some cases he had taught two generations of the same family, and when he heard that one of his former students was now going to be a grandmother, he decided to spend the rest of his days under water taking pictures of fish and coral (he was a stunning photographer). I took a few days off of school and drove back to my hometown to attend his last day and subsequent retirement party. It was quite an affair, having students young and old thanking him for all of his hard work – four of us brought cakes even. It was heartwarming to me that several of his students knew who I was when he introduced me as ”that kid I talk about;”apparently he had been telling nearly a decade of kids after me about what he enabled me to do.

Before Mr. Francis, I suppose I didn’t know that I could apply myself, really push for and fight for something with the hope and expectation of achieving it. I honestly think that without his guidance and ’can-do’ attitude, I wouldn’t have gone to college, wouldn’t have earned my Eagle Scout award, wouldn’t have been able to reach forth and discover just to what heights I could grasp. He taught me not just mathematics, but that life was best served on a plate of determination, of self-assurance, and joy in what one was doing.

Mr. Francis and I have fallen out of touch, he having moved out of the state (most likely to somewhere with a bit warmer water; Guam, Hawai’i, or New Zealand or the like), but I can’t ever begin to thank him enough for showing me what a little change of attitude, strength of conviction, and self-reliance can accomplish.