Thank you, Miss King

Thank you, Miss King January 17, 2008

I had a geometry teacher in high school in about 1968 or so, a certain Miss King, one of those rare teachers you have who leaves a permanent mark.

This was the mark she left:

Sometimes, there is only one right answer.

I was pretty good in school, producing a decade or so of straight A’s without much trouble, but even I occasionally got the wrong answer. Mixed in with the lessons I absorbed for most of those years, though, was the lesson of “partial credit.” If the answer to a test question was “hydrocarbons” but you put down “carbohydrates,” you could usually wheedle at least half credit. Considering the infinite number of possible answers that would include neither “hydro” nor “carbo,” lots of times the teachers would give you more than half credit, sometimes as much as 80 percent. Because you almost got it right.

The lesson, that pretty close is often good enough, certainly affected our aim. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one caught up eventually in providing answers that were only good enough.

But in life, even in the safe, rich life so many of us enjoy in the West … 

 good enough is sometimes not good enough. These many years later, I know you can be ten cents off in your bank statement and pay $100 or more in overdraft fees.

But Miss King was the first to impress the lesson on me. She did it in a nice way, but there was a steely firmness in her insistence that sometimes the right answer was the right answer, and no other answer would do. Real life could be unforgiving even of the most wholehearted good intentions, and deaf to the most insistent wheedling.

In a world that can kill you in a split second or, worse, suck $100 out of your checking account in the same amount of time, this is a real-world lesson every young person needs to learn. But nobody before Miss King had made this amazing and useful point.

There are people I’ve thought about going back to thank for giving me the pivot points around which my life changed, and Miss King would be somewhere high on that list.

But … she was only “Miss King” – none of us were ever given teacher’s first names. The one time I tried to ask about her, about ten years after graduation, the school official I spoke to treated me like I was a slow-burning psychopath. Apparently, no benign motivation could possibly exist for wanting to get in touch with a teacher that many years later.

She’s out there somewhere, an attractive black woman probably long since married and no longer Miss King. And she has no idea, will never have any idea, how grateful I am to her for the life-changing lesson.

Sometimes, there is only one right answer.

Thank you, Miss King.

With warm feelings of gratitude, I hope all the years since our 9th grade geometry class have been kind to you. I hope you had a long, fulfilling career, and a life of successes, joys and boundless good health.

And to all the teachers out there, who have collectively made such a difference in all our lives:

Thank you for what you do. Some of us students actually do learn things, and sometimes you really touch us in unexpected ways.

"Best to you, Mr. Fox, and for your efforts."

Goodbye Patheos—Hank Fox Bows Out
"All the best, Hank! Your thoughts and words have always given me something to ponder."

Goodbye Patheos—Hank Fox Bows Out

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