A Gift From a Good Teacher

by Dave Thompson
Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

Mr. Dalton was one of the “good” teachers, one who smiled because he was genuinely happy, who was passionate about teaching us a subject he clearly loved: plane geometry. I was one of the quiet kids, who, because socially inept, just didn’t say much. I neither got in much trouble nor got noticed. Today, I would be called a nerd. Somehow, plane geometry really clicked for me in his class.

Toward the end of the year, Mr. Dalton wanted to check our knowledge of geometry, and gave us a 25 question, True-False, national standardized test. The test presented a problem, with a conclusion shown. If we could prove the result using our precious theorems, the answer was True, if it couldn’t be proved, it was False.

I ripped through 24 of the problems, but number 17 was a challenge! I knew intuitively that I could prove it, but it wasn’t obvious at all. I spent 30 minutes on that proof, covering my page with auxiliary lines, parallelograms, and congruencies, until the proof at last was there. Satisfied, I marked True and handed in the test. This was the hardest test our class had done.

When the results came back the next day, my score was a 96, with number 17 being marked wrong! When Mr. Dalton asked if there were any questions, for the first time my hand shot up. “The correct answer to number 17 is True!”

A Gift From a Good Teacher Instead of arguing that this was a national, standardized test, and what could I possibly know about the answer, Mr. Dalton did the most powerful thing I have ever seen a teacher do. Saying nothing, smiling encouragingly, he held out his chalk to me from the front of the room.

I went to the board for the first time, and over the course of that class, demonstrated my proof to the class. I used the whole board and three different colors of chalk. At the end, everyone agreed, with applause, no less, that the correct answer was True. Mr. Dalton (with that impish grin on his face) asked if anyone else had come up with that proof, and of course no one spoke up. He gave everyone credit for a right answer on number 17, and I ended up with a grade of 104.

That event happened 37 years ago. When I returned to my home town after many years, I looked Mr. Dalton up to thank him for allowing me to challenge his authority. Alzheimer’s had claimed his mind, but he still had that impish, happy grin.

From that day in his geometry class, I have had no problem speaking to a group, as long as I’m sure I’m right. His gift has served me well. So here’s to you, Mr. Dalton, and all the other teachers who empower students. Rest assured, your gifts continue to improve the lives of your students as long as they live.

(Editor’s Note: author Dave Thompson is the president of Educational Fontware, Inc. — http://www.EducationalFontware.com — a company that provides handwriting fonts to primary and special education teachers and parents.)

Originally published as HeroicStories #157 on July 7, 2000
Available in The Best of HeroicStories, Volume 2.

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4 thoughts on “A Gift From a Good Teacher”

  1. This story rings home to me because I had several teachers over the years that added much to my life by their encouragement and acceptance. Also, throughout the years I have witnessed many dedicated teachers and mentors who love people make a huge different in the lives of their students. I’m not an educator by the way.
    I just want to affirm those that have made a difference in all our lives!

    • This is a beautiful story of human beings interacting on the highest level: the boy’s discovery of his courage, a fine teacher’s brilliant response to a challenge rendered so naturally, and the enduring impact on the boy’s self-esteem to which he credits his professional success. It’s good, too, to be reminded that although we may be the authority and have the back-up of even higher authority, we are not necessarily right, and sometimes just giving someone a chance to explain their side of an issue can have remarkable and unexpected results.

  2. What a remarkable teacher. I had a few teachers like this over the years, in High School and College. As much as Mr. Dalton taught you plane geometry, he taught you to have confidence in yourself. The teachers that stick out in my mind after all these years are the ones who taught much more than a curriculum.

    Thank you to the Mr. Dalton’s of the world.

  3. My husband has his PhD in Mathematics. He says he fell in love with math when he realized that the correct answer did not depend on anyone’s opinion, but on what you could prove. Mr. Dalton was the kind of teacher who let the student prove his answer, thus gaining confidence in himself.


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