Keith Cooper

Thank You Mrs. Mell!

Mrs. Mell was my Algebra II teacher in high school. She was a tough but fair teacher who taught me lessons about life beyond Math. My biggest regret is never personally thanking her for the effect her leadership had on my life.

The story began on the last day of my junior year of high school. It was report card day, and in those days, we received a piece of paper with our grade on it. Nothing was computerized or automated, nor did we have the internet. Mrs. Mell walked around to our desks, thanked us for our work, and wished us a wonderful summer. She told each of us something special she liked about us as she approached our desk, and then she handed us a piece of paper with our grade. She was a person who knew more about each one of us than our parents did, very similar to the great teachers we have today.

Well, long story short, I received a B, not an A. My grade did not come as a surprise, for all the scores I’d received made it apparent that I would get a B. However, my dad had always given me $5 for each A I received and nothing for a B or below. So, making the honor roll continuously with 4 As and 3 Bs or 6 As and a B was nice, but that magic of straight As never ever reached my report card, let alone my dad’s wallet.

Alaska had a policy that high school students needed four credits of English and three credits of Math to graduate. Each year counted as a credit. So, given I’d taken both Math and English since the 9th grade, I was, in my mind, done with Math and could cruise to victory by taking Office Aide as a senior instead of pre-Calculus, thereby assuring me of that A grade I so desperately wanted to get that extra $5. (Laugh if you want, but $5 in 1976 was a lot of money. In my first job in 1974 as a high school sophomore stocking shelves in a warehouse, I made $2.10 an hour, before tax.)

So, upon the dismissal of class before heading to my locker, I stopped by Mrs. Mell’s desk and thanked her, to which she replied, “See you next year.” I then smiled and told her if she did, it would be in the hallway because I was not taking Math as a senior. I went over the logic of only having to take the state required three years of Math and reminded her that I had fulfilled my graduation requirement. I then said, “By the way, my dad gives me $5 for each A and nothing for a B, so I’m shooting for straight As next year and not taking math because I have never made an A in Math.”

Well, she smiled and said, “Okay, have a good summer.”

That evening, as I was sitting at the dining room table watching TV, I heard my dad arrive at about the regular time. Mom was already home. He walked in with the paper under his arm, a bag carrying a few groceries, and a six-pack of Carling Black Label beer. He walked by, said his usual “hello” as he unloaded his arms, and then went into the bedroom to take off his shirt and come back in with his white t-shirt and slippers. He sat down in the chair behind me and opened the paper, then he started talking. He said, “A friend of yours called me today.”

Now, this was the last day of school, either a Wednesday or a Thursday, and no friend of mine would have called my dad. I mean, really. So, I turned and looked at him, very puzzled, as I thought, what did I do? I then asked, “Who called you?”

He announced to both me and my mom, who happened to be in the kitchen cooking, that Mrs. Mell, my Math teacher, had called him at work. “She said she talked with you, and you had no intention of taking Math as a senior. She said you were a wonderful student, and she knew taking pre-Calculus next year as a senior would help you.”

I then said, “Dad, she’s right, I have no intention of taking Math. I don’t have to. The state rules for graduation state only three years are needed, and I have met those requirements. Besides, Dad, you give me $5 for an A and nothing for a B, and I can tell you I’m planning on making straight As next year.”

My dad popped the tab of his beer, then shuffled the newspaper to the sports section and simply said, “You’re taking Math next year.”

I was absolutely devastated, but I knew I would be taking Math for a fourth year. I didn’t know it then, but I was developing a mask of conformity. Thank goodness my dad snatched it off my face.

The next year, I did not make straight As. I continued to get a B in Math, and I did not get that $5. But the pre-Calculus course helped get me into West Point. West Point enabled me to be a successful Army leader, and the Army sent me to the Colorado School of Mines, where I received a master’s in math, and well, the rest is history.

Mrs. Mell, a teacher from the greatest generation, did not let grades or money deter her from making a call to my dad. I owe her so much that even as I write this, forty-seven years later, tears still come to my eyes.

So, for those of you out there chasing money or grades or performance reports at work, I want you to look back at your life and see who your Mrs. Mell was and send them a thank-you note. I don’t even want to think about where I would be today had I taken the easy route of $5 and an A. Our teachers change our lives, and we should be appreciative and grateful. Each of you should consider doing what I did and writing your version of a thank you to Mrs. Mell!

  • There is a reason kids talk as positively about their teachers as their parents. Teachers know kids and the potential of kids better than most parents. Teachers do not get stock bonuses; teachers do not make the money you and I do. They have a higher calling, a calling that resonates around the success of our kids.
  • Before you get upset because your kid came home with a grade you think was too low, just maybe, before picking up your cell phone, pick up your shoes and go have a respectful conversation with the teacher about your child. Should the teacher call you, listen before defending your child then ask the all-important question: What can I do as a parent to work with the teacher so my kid can become a better student?
  • Who was your Mrs. Mell in high school? Have you told them thank you?