by Debbie Webb
In high school I was definitely a nerd. I liked school and didn’t like sports, and the combination pegged me as unpopular. I was a good student, and thought that meant I was smart.
Phil Whiteside was my math teacher for two years. He was also a bit of a mentor as I mended books for him, and played with his computer (one of the few there was in school). His classroom walls were dotted with motivational slogans. He had a passion for sharing the wonder of mathematics with us.
I enjoyed learning with his enthusiastic encouragement. We had a graded system of cards with math problems on them. As I solved each level, I progressed to the next. I was desperate to make it to the last level before the end of the year, and was thrilled whenever I found the solution to a previously unsolvable problem.
One day after I’d been disruptive, Mr Whiteside told me he expected better of me as I was the best student in his class. I protested that I wasn’t. While I liked math and school in general, I was a decidedly B student. Other kids in class had gotten 100% on recent tests. But Mr Whiteside insisted, and though I didn’t understand at the time how he thought I was his best student, I took his class more seriously after that.
Not long after I left high school, Mr Whiteside died from a long illness. I was a university student by then, and took time off my classes to attend his service. As I rounded a corner still a fair way from the site of the service, I saw that the road was lined with cars — and realized that they probably all belonged to people who were there for his service.
I parked and walked up, and the place was full. They opened a side area with closed-circuit TV of the service to accommodate everyone, and still there were people outside. Mr Whiteside had obviously touched a lot of people. I saw I wasn’t the only one to find him inspirational, but it took me yet more time to fully realize his effect on me.
Nearly ten years after arguing that I wasn’t the best student in his class, one day I suddenly realized what Mr Whiteside meant. We both knew I hadn’t received the highest grades in math, but he saw that I applied myself and enjoyed learning. I was dedicated to the learning process, and that was what made me a good student for him.
Even though I didn’t fully appreciate his lesson until years later, it was still valuable to me. From Mr Whiteside I learned that it’s not necessarily achievement that makes us successful or interesting — it’s the attitude we take.