Thursday, September 27, 2012

Growing pains.

One of the most impactful teachers I had in school was not very encouraging. I probably didn't hear "good job" or "way to go" too often from Coach O'Neal.

(Before you ask, yes, I was and still am a total dork. Even so, I'm pretty sure this teacher's behavior toward me wasn't just because I was smack in the middle of my awkward phase, which I would, for the record, gradually meander away from around the tender age of 22.)

No, if memory serves correctly, I think it's safe to say none of us at d'Iberville High -- the graceful, angsty, athletic, pretty, troublemakers, awkward, pimply, mischievous, gorgeous, shy, overeager, troublesome or ambivalent -- walked out of that classroom at the end of A Hall with the warm and fuzzies on a regular basis.

Yet, it seems the majority of us ended the semester, year, high school career, and sometimes even the week under Coach O'Neal's tutelage with a great sense of satisfaction of having tackled something much more complex than the when-will-I-EVER-use-this-in-the-real-world Algebra III equations we inevitably, somehow, miraculously overcame.

In Coach O'Neal's class, we tackled an environment where it didn't matter who "ya mama an' 'em" was. It didn't matter if you wore snazzy Girbaud jeans (my cool friends) or highlighter pink smiley face t-shirts (dorky me). It didn't matter if you had beautiful silky smooth hair or had never heard of hair product but desperately needed to (must you ask?).

What did matter in Coach O'Neal's class -- at least what I recall of it -- was the task at hand. If you were in Trig, Trig mattered. Same for all the Algebras and other advanced math classes.

This isn't to say the other excellent teachers we rave about didn't focus on the same things; they totally did. But Coach O'Neal did it in a much different way, and we all knew it.

Coach O'Neal's focus was sans the warm and fuzzies, and when you got him for your math classes, you were well aware that your work was cut out for you.

DHS didn't have only one math teacher, so I wasn't required to ever walk into this man's classroom. Given that, you can imagine my parents' surprise when I requested him for Algebra I just a year or two after he'd wrongfully accused my very sweet sister of cheating on a test. (Those of you who know my sister KNOW. I won't expound too much.) So to make a very long story a little less long, after The Accusation, my kind parents met with him leading to no results, my sister powered through, took the 0 on the test,  and worked like a dog to pull her grade up.

Because of all this, my parents were understandably mortified not long after when their questionably minded younger child chose this man for not just that one inaugural class, but eventually all four years of really unnecessary advanced math classes during high school.

And looking at this in black text on the white screen, I gotta wonder, why in the world would I do that to myself? Or them? Or Kim, for the love of Pete?

But, feeling the emotions that have come from the reason I've typed these words tonight, of course I know why.

I chose to take elective math classes that I didn't need not to raise advanced or bonus or whatever the geek word for Overachiever's GPA was in the 90s, but to prove something to Coach O'Neal...or so I thought at the time. I thought I was showing him that our family was ethical, and not scared of him.

And maybe, just a little bit, in some ways, I was.

But maybe also, I kind of liked tackling his snuff-dipping, deck shoe-wearing, unconventional, non-back-patting teaching style. Because getting those As and Bs on tests and in classes and subjects I really hated and didn't excel at and had to work for felt much better than any end-of-year academic award in areas that came much more naturally to me.

See, when I was growing up, in and out of the classroom, I received encouragement and warmth and receptiveness from almost everyone. I mean, I was no one's little princess by any means, but I was good for the most part. I did my work and did it well. I only smarted off  out loud sometimes; I didn't push the line too much, and when I did, I apologized.

So getting a straightforward, no-nonsense hour of sarcasm laced with, "If you can do this, show me you can do this" each weekday might've been good for my shiny (hello, T-zone!), happy self. I think I might've even grown to like it a little bit.

And one thing's for sure: there's nothing like a good balance of warmth and reality from high school teachers to prepare you for college professors, the work world, "grown-up" relationships and "adult friends" that come with enough drama to make Ryan Seacrest feel like it's his birthday. In fact, I think can see Coach O'Neal rolling his eyes now!

Only....I can't. And I haven't for many years.

Which is why I'm thinking of him tonight, and why I'm working through this whole Dewey Decimal system of memories, blog-style, like I do when I need to sort out this type of thing.

I learned today that this impactful, sloppy-on-the-outside, studious-on-the-inside instructor o' mine has been dying of metastatic colon cancer, and that Hospice has been called in.

From what I've heard through former classmates, he's donating his body to scientific study, and his family and friends will hold a memorial service on the beach. All this is very fitting for the unconventional, shaggy haired teacher who non-verbally challenged my word-loving self to take advanced math classes and my sweet sister to stay in his class and pull up her undeserved failing grade.

In Coach O'Neal's classes, we at DHS learned to power through more than the successive Algebras and Trigonometries.

In Coach O'Neal's class, I think we all learned how to power through growing pains, which for some of us included an unfortunately late discovery of hair products, and for others might've been the buzzkill of peaking at a very young age.

Today, with the news of his declining health, many of Coach O'Neal's students are powering through other growing pains.

We're all adults now, for better or for worse.

Some of us have procreated.

Some are in our ultimate careers.

Others are still discovering that path.

We all can drive and are probably doing this every day, which might make Coach O'Neal shudder if he were to use energy to think about those very special days in the student parking lot.

Far removed from the sacred halls of DHS, we still might not get warm and fuzzies from each of life's "teachers," but we've probably learned how to scope out the ones who will instruct us well, and which ones we should return to for repeat lessons.

Whether or not we resolved the growing pains of if and only if, other complexities of higher-level math, or Coach O'Neal's sarcasm, we're basically all dealing with the same word problems as our peers now, just as we were back in 5th period.

My sister has been teaching since the late 90s, and is stronger in that environment in every way than I could be for one hour. In the past month, I have volunteered for work projects that were out of my realm, but they needed to be done, so I stepped in.

But no matter what we've grown to do and be, I'm confident that all of Coach O'Neal's students have our own stories to tell and be told, and our own challenges, word problems and solutions waiting to be worked out.

And you know what? We're Warriors. We got this.

So here's to you, your ever sockless feet, and those deck shoes, Coach O'Neal. You won't be forgotten. Thanks for all the lessons.

Sail on.


  1. Red, I couldn't have said it better than you did. He was tough on us but he knew it was best for us. I always enjoyed myself in his classes. I will definitely miss him.

    1. Thanks, Jeremy. You're so right -- he was tough on us and knew it was best for us.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks so much, sweet girl. Love you!

  4. jennifer tiblier knoxSeptember 28, 2012 at 10:15 AM

    Rebecca, thank you for sharing! Beautifully put. I always loved Coach O'Neal. I think one of the reasons he was my favorite is BECAUSE he was such an unconventional cat. I loved the fact that he lived on a boat and wore deck shoes to school everyday. I loved the fact that he was a hard-ass and made us all grow. That he showed no mercy and forced us all (nerd or jock) to learn how to deal with "tough". He has and will always hold a special place in my heart and memories of high school and I say "Sail On, Coach" too.

  5. Loved this! Brought back memories of algebra III. People ask why i took that as an elective, but i really enjoued the class probably because it wasnt easy. That, & I got to know you better. My prayers are with his family & friends. Love you! Shells

  6. Loved this! Brought back memories of algebra III. People ask why i took that as an elective, but i really enjoued the class probably because it wasnt easy. That, & I got to know you better. My prayers are with his family & friends. Love you! Shells

    1. Shelley, I feel the same way! Love & miss you!

    2. (Also, are you still blogging? I'd love to keep up but can't find your original invite. Can you resend? Xoxo!)

  7. "Coach O'Neal" is simply known to me as "Dad" and if you think having him as a teacher was hard you can only imagine what it is like being one of his daughters! I am happy to tell you that he stopped wearing deck shoes but unfortunately it was only because he started a vast love affair with crocs. However, he never lowered himself to wearing socks...not even to my wedding.:) I am sorry that your family had some issues with him but thrilled to hear that it all worked out in the end. Lord knows he could be difficult although when it came to dealing with my children he was a big ol softy- well at least as soft as he could be. Thanks for sharing this. A bit different. A bit harsh. A bit rude. A bit difficult. A bit stubborn. A bit funny. All my dad.

    1. Carissa, I'm absolutely heartbroken for your family, and honored that you'd comment. I know you're grateful for the days and years you and your children had with your dad -- and all of his dimensions. Many prayers and much peace as you all grieve his loss.

  8. Carissa,
    Please accept my deepest condolences to you and your family on the loss of your dad. He was a wonderful teacher, and before that, an awesome bus driver (I rode his bus from about 3rd grade until 10th or 11th). No one could drive a stick-shift school bus like your dad, and I absolutely HATED it when I boarded the bus only to see that we had a substitute driver :)! He was always a bit of an enigma to me, since he didn't share too much other than algebra, geometry, and calculus with us. But, your dad was an awesome teacher and I can honestly say he prepared me very well for the many, many, many hours of math I had to complete to obtain BS and PhD degrees in engineering. I have many fond memories of dodging chalk, erasers, and markers in his class, hearing him say "this is Mickey Mouse, kids," and sweating through his tests. No matter how tough he seemed, I never doubted that he did truly believe in me and my mathematical abilities. He truly made a difference in my life and will not be forgotten.

    Katherine T. (DHS c/o 1996)


Throw me sumthin', mister!