It was algebra class, if I remember correctly. I was always a bit ill at ease there, math never being my long suit: more of a words and concepts guy than an exacting numbers sort. Perched on the desk corner at the front of the room was the teacher, a true teacher, awaiting the correct answers to the day’s homework from the adolescent rabble he would call on, one by one. He was an athletic coach but he broke the convention that coaches are, well, something less than motivated classroom teachers; an outstanding coach, he was even better as a math teacher.
Perched isn’t the right word for Coach’s position, exactly: he was not one to perch. The posture was more of a languorous fluidity; his long body relaxed and stretched from far out on the floor to his kind but firm face. He reminded me more of a great wise bird of prey than anything that would happily perch.
At the moment, we were stuck finding the correct answer to a problem. Several had been called on, none had prevailed. The tension mounted as new recruits would be brought into what seemed to me a crucible. To Coach, of course, it was merely a part of the exercise, a necessary component of learning. I kept looking at my answer, knowing only that it was different from the ones given and hoping – no, praying – that I would not be called on.
Wham! My heart convulsed! I heard my name ricochet in the room from a clear, deep voice, ending any hope of grace. The sound was more of a deep bark really, like the excited call of a big hound close to its mark. After a pause, came the deep, soft, and very slow, “Whut’s the answer.”
I cannot for the life of me, remember being any more afraid, any more rattled, than at that moment. Like all of us, I have had close calls. I’ve been intentionally shot at. Multiple .30-06 rounds have accidentally come within inches of me – no, honest, it was inches –in the deer woods. I’ve been threatened three more times by pistol-waving madmen. I’ve faced a car hurtling at 70 mph on the interstate heading the wrong way, directly at me. I’ve stared at bills I could not pay. Malifacent’s black eyes read my heart as she coldly explained her divorce terms to me. I have stood on a single 2×12, 150 feet above the ground with no safety gear while expected to saw 2x4s to spec as they were pitched to me. I’ve been pharmaceutically paranoid. All this and more, but I have never been as afraid as when Coach called on me for that answer.
Panic seemed entirely appropriate. Chaotically, I searched for options. I could give my answer and face sure humiliation. The alternative was only slightly better: I could demur. I could simply say, “I don’t know.” I might, just might, get away with the lesser embarrassment of not having an answer. I chose the latter. “I don’t know, Coach,” I said sheepishly.
On his desk, Coach kept only a few books. Mostly math books, I think. With my response, his languid demeanor changed instantly from Great Condor to jungle cat, springing gracefully on the prey. In a blink – less than a blink – he turned, grabbed a book from the half dozen there, and stretched his great length across the front row to hold before me, right in my face, the Holy Bible, all the while never rising from his seat on the desk corner.
“Good God a ‘mighty!” I thought. “The Bible! He’s got the Bible after me! For an algebra problem!!?”
“Boy, doesn’t this book mean anything to you?” It was the voice of Moses from Sinai. No. Not Moses. Surely, this was the voice of the Great I Am, calling down to me, calling me out, with an angry face. I’m pretty sure there was fire, too.
I did not have a clue what he meant. But I did know the answer to this question, “Yes sir.”
The face turned soft and a big smile replaced the angry visage, “Well, then, whut’s the answer?” he asked as the Bible withdrew and he resumed his more relaxed posture, the Judging God disappearing.
I gave my answer. It was, praise the Greeks, correct. We all went on with the next homework problem. I checked my pants.
It took me a few years to figure out this incident. Here’s what I think. Coach knew me and knew I would have an answer. More importantly, he knew I lacked confidence. He also knew, like all good teachers, than the only lasting cure for lack of confidence is trying and succeeding. He gave me that opportunity and taught me a great lesson, in a way that I would never forget.
Good teachers and good managers (they are much the same) in order to develop their charges, must give those charges the opportunity to succeed on their own. That chance comes hand-in-hand with the opportunity to fail. To deny them the chance, to protect them — or to protect one’s self — is to restrict the student’s growth or limit the organization’s success.
20 years or so later, I stood in the hall with other grad students on the last night before finals of what had been a rough second-term stat class. Due to the illness of the usual instructor, it had been taught by the department head who regularly shared his unhappiness about teaching the class, and seemed to care little for any outcomes. The students discussed the “wholly unreasonable” requirement the prof had given in order to be exempted from the final. “Nobody with a full-time job like all of us could possibly make an A on all the exams and homework! That’s just not possible! No one would even try for that!”
I didn’t say anything, but that was neither the first nor the last time I silently thanked Coach Clary for our Biblical moment. I don’t know if my cohorts missed me at the final or not. I doubt it; I didn’t miss them.