Norman: When all else fails, follow the instructions
With National Teacher’s Day coming up next Tuesday, I got to thinking about the many teachers who had a positive influence on my life. And there were many.
One of the first that comes to mind, was Mr. Lewis Roberson, my seventh grade “Advanced Math” class teacher. Mr. Roberson was probably in his late 50s, balding, of small stature, wore glasses and the first male teacher I ever had. I was intimidated by him and the subject he’d be teaching (Advanced Math) from the get-go.
Now I was pretty smart, but the first time I walked into his class and looked around, I could just tell there were some really smart dudes and dudettes in there.... Jesse, Janeen, and Jimmy just to name a few. Mr. Roberson started calling roll, alphabetically by last name. Even that was intimidating.
I was used to hearing an upbeat personable “Charlie” from a sweet woman’s voice, instead of the monotone impersonal “Norman” I got from Mr. Roberson. He passed out our yellow soft-cover “Advanced Mathematics” textbooks, and as I skimmed through it, I got this sick kinda feeling inside. There were graphs and diagrams and symbols in there I’d never seen before. Oh boy, what have I got myself into? Mr. Roberson assigned us the first two problems in the book for homework for next day’s class.
“Brain Teasers” was what they were called. Things like: An athlete is able to jump forever, but each time he jumps, he gets a little more tired. Every jump goes 1/2 as far as the previous jump. On the very first jump, he goes one foot. The next jump he goes only 1/2 foot and so on. The question is, how many jumps does it take him to go 2 feet? The answer – He NEVER gets to the two foot mark, because you keep adding smaller and smaller amounts. Well, my 12 year-old brain wasn’t used to thinking like this. These weren’t “brain teasers.” They were “brain hurts.” I did not get the answer(s).
Jesse did. He got’em all.... from then on, too (Jesse got a full academic scholarship to Rice University six years later too... what does that tell you?). I was distraught. I thought everybody else got the answers. I did not know they were just like me. This went on for about a week, and my parents could tell I was unhappy. I told them about math class and Mr. Roberson and how I was NOT getting it. Well, what’s a parent to do? My dad called Mr. Roberson on the phone and I heard them talking. I don’t know what my daddy said exactly, but I was a little embarrassed and relieved at the same time.
Next day in math class, right after roll call, Mr. Roberson said, “Norman, come with me a minute.” We stepped out into the hall and walked down toward the water fountain, and in essence, this is what he said to me in a soft gentle voice: “Charlie, your dad called last night. We had a nice conversation. Listen, son, you’re going to do just fine in this class. These math problems, this first week or so, are just to get you and your classmates to thinking in a way you might not have done before. To stretch you a bit. Truth be known, most of your fellow students aren’t getting the answers either. Jesse does, but he’s the exception. He’s actually exceptional. Now YOU are a smart kid or you wouldn’t have been placed in this class. Next week we’ll be getting into a different type of math. You study hard, ask questions, and try the best you can and you will get this. I’ll help you, and I’ll be your friend. Besides all that, you’re a Norman and I know your granddaddy, Charles Sr. You got good genes, Charles III.”
That one-minute conversation in the hallway of Crockett Junior High School in the fall of 1962 changed my thinking about male teachers, my confidence level in academia, thoughts toward my peers/friends, and those in authority. From then on, at least once a week, when Mr. Roberson called roll and he came to me, instead of saying “Norman,” without looking up, he’d call out “#3.” It was his way of acknowledging me as an individual in his class and not just a random kid in his class.
Made me feel special ... little things. I learned lots of things in Mr. Roberson’s class. We learned how to fill out tax returns (Forms 990, 1040, etc.), and we even got our Social Security cards through his class. We also learned why, “when all else fails” to follow instructions. One day we had a three-page exam. A “pop quiz”... oh, how I hated those! He told us we had a maximum of 30 minutes to complete it and when finished, to put it up on his desk.
The very first sentence read in all caps: BEFORE COMPLETING THIS EXAM, READ ALL INSTRUCTIONS FIRST. Like everybody else it seemed, I glanced over it pretty quickly and just started writing. The problems were not that difficult, and I so I filled in all the answers in short order. Then, right at the end, after the last problem, I noticed a sentence I had previously carelessly dismissed. It read in regular type: “Now that you have come to the end of the exam, do NOT answer any of the problems (leave them blank), simply sign your name in the space provided and bring your paper to the front desk. You get an “A” on the exam if you followed instructions.”
I got that sick kinda feeling again. No wonder Jesse handed his paper in about two minutes into the test. I thought he was just being Jesse again. He was, and got his usual “A.” ALL of this is to say to you teachers out there on the front line, those of you with our kids and grandkids everyday, “YOU ARE APPRECIATED. It’s a much different, more difficult world than the one I faced growing up. I can hardly imagine. But YOU can be a force for good.
You never know what an encouraging word, a warm and kind smile, or a heartfelt pep talk to a discouraged young person might do to change a life. THANK YOU for what you do. Who knows? Maybe some 60 years from now someone might write story about you.
Charlie Norman has lived in Somervell County since 1994. He and his wife have two adult children, who graduated from Glen Rose schools. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.