Pulling in for a pit stop at Raton, N.M., population 6,066. Time to gas up, point the car east and drive until Google says stop. Raton is a buzzing hive of urban activity compared to where I’m going.
Wheeler lies 300 miles away in the Texas panhandle, 1,573 folks (give or take) living 12 miles from the Oklahoma state line. No really good way to get there. You can take the interstate, but you’ll lose two hours compared to the back roads.
From Raton, it’s east to Clayton, over the state line into Dalhart and Dumas (home of the “Ding Dong Daddy”). Then it’s a little bit south and a lot more east to Stinnett, Pampa, and Mobeetie. Finally, about seven hours or so after you’ve left Colorado Springs, you roll into Wheeler.
It’s Friday night, things close pretty early around here, but I can see Maxey’s Steakhouse from my hotel room window. I walk over, order a Texas-sized prime rib at a small town price. Yup, it’s Wheeler time.
Some of you may remember my writing about my 7th grade math teacher, Mr. Richardson. I only had him for a year, but he was a big inspiration to me. I’m here for his memorial service.
The teacher who makes a difference is a worn-out cliché. And yet, like all clichés, this one has a basis in truth. Some teachers really do have a larger-than-life impact on you. They inspire passion for the subject, they give you confidence, they are role models who inspire. Mr. Richardson was one of mine.
Mr. Richardson taught me and my two best middle school friends how to play bridge. This man was such a force of nature, the three of us stayed in from recess to play cards with him. I assume someone was supervising the rest of the class on the playground, but it wasn’t Mr. Richardson. He was teaching us how to bid a short club and take finesses.
Apparently, hundreds of other kids felt that way about Mr. Richardson, because many of their older selves joined me in the pews. We all told our stories, each of us contributing a piece to the mosaic of honor and memory. A labor of love for a good man who had lived a good life.
Turns out he played baseball and football in high school and college. So much for the stereotype of the dumb jock. When an injury sidelined him permanently, he picked up a bridge book to fill the void. Within a couple of years, he had so mastered the game that he and a fellow math major became Master players and were seriously contemplating turning pro.
I know this because that gentleman was sitting behind me. A successful computer consultant, now semi-retired, Mr. Richardson’s longtime bridge partner and I talked a lot about the man we knew. I was glad to hear that Mr. Richardson, who majored in math and physics at West Texas College, thought education degrees and teacher certification requirements were a lot of “horse puckey”. What you needed were the three E’s: Excellent mastery of the material, Enthusiasm for the subject, and Empathy for your students. Works for me.
As a math and science teacher, he went to small towns in the Midwest knowing he could get a job anywhere. I heard story after story of how he inspired young people from places like Cement, Oklahoma to learn mathematics, to get confidence in themselves, to be the best they could be. I also learned he was born in Wheeler, on a farm, and ultimately that was why he came back.
I talked with the family for a while, thanked the preacher, and headed up Main Street for the long drive back. Wheeler has more trucks than cars, American and Texas flags flying everywhere, and an uncertain future. But I’m glad to have known it, even as it fades in my rear view mirror for the last time.
Then again, maybe I’ll retire there. I hear there’s an opening for a math teacher.
Barry Fagin is Senior Fellow in Technology Policy at the Independence Institute in Denver, and a Colorado CASE Professor of the Year. His views are his alone. Readers can write Dr. Fagin at firstname.lastname@example.org.