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.
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.