By Mark Scott
I began this school year with a Facebook post showing me arriving early. As usual. To an empty parking lot. On the first day of school. It was the first day – 1 – of my final year, and my countdown had begun.
It was a post that many reacted to with the kind and encouraging words that you would expect. Without counting holidays and weekends, I had each day numbered off on my calendar. At Winter Break I had ninety-three more workdays to go before I would officially be retired. 93. Excitement built; not just with me but with my students as well, when they finally noticed and figured out what the countdown in the upper left hand of the board meant.
I never liked math. And for a long time I thought that meant that I also disliked numbers. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Ask any of my middle or high school students about me and one thing they would all say is: “Mr. Scott is The Counter.” Whenever there was a deadline, transition, or a need for focus – I counted. It usually worked, although I had to include fractions, the bane of my existence, every once in a while. It was simply one of the tricks of the trade.
But it was more than that.
I. Count. Everything. I’m the guy that loves a day spent on the floor separating a big pile of coins into separate containers by denomination and creating a total. Yes, you got it – OCD. And one of my annual stories to students, who mistakenly believed that I know everything, was about a time that I failed – miserably.
I did okay in Algebra I, even with the feared mixing of letters and numbers – that is, until they mixed in fractions. On my first test I made a 74, and the grades kept dropping from there. At the end of the year, I fully expected Mr. Luellen to at least give me a D. I couldn’t fail; I had never failed. How wrong I was. My average was not 68. Or 58. No, my yearly average was an 08! Zero, eight. I failed! I failed BIG TIME.
When asked who my favorite teacher was, my answer has always been Mr. Luellen. This response always confounded my students, but my answer was easy: success in other subjects, like history, came easily. But for me, success in math required scaling an incredibly tall wall that made no sense and seemed so irrelevant. Mr. Luellen was my favorite teacher because he taught me about me. He made me face my weaknesses, ignorance, and stubbornness. And he made me work, work hard.
I learned that I could make things better, if I tried. That, to me, has always been one of the most important things that I taught my U.S. History students throughout the year. What good is knowing about Yorktown, The Second Great Awakening, Ft. Sumter, and Reconstruction if you do not know about yourself?
The next year, I arose every morning at 4am. I would study Algebra for two hours before getting ready to go to school. I studied out loud and paced back and forth – those noisy study habits remain with me to this day. I studied on the 45-minute bus ride, throughout homeroom, and at the beginnings and ends of all the other classes, until I finally reached the test. By no means did this solve my issues with mathematical ignorance, but throughout the year it did help me maintain a solid F+ / D- average.
Then came the exam. I pulled off a 71 Average for the year. My students were amazed that I am prouder of that 71/D than any other grade that I have ever made throughout life.
Thanks Mr. Luellen.
* * * * *
By January, all of the needed choices had been made, and the paperwork and forms sent to both county and state. I put one of my best friends in charge of the retirement party. My spouse and I bought a new Subaru, in order to make a retirement road-trip around the Great Lakes. I was ready. The real countdown began, the numbers descending in just the OCD way I had planned. 82. 70. 58.
Then we had a pandemic.
March 12, 2020 started as an ordinary day. After completion of the US History curriculum we were in a frenzied mode to review a full year’s curriculum all over again in four weeks to prepare for state testing. Bellevue had dominated the US History test last year and we were all determined to do it again. By midday, the gossip around the school was that school was cancelled for the rest of the week. I had 45 more workdays. Hmm. How were we going to make up so many lost days?
Well, as we all know now – we were not.
My last day, May 22, came 71 days later (including weekends and holidays). We did Zoom Classes, Microsoft TEAMS classes, but neither were adequate to teach a real curriculum. However, they did allow me to see those wonderful young people, and to check in on one another. Eventually, most of us even allowed one another to see the craziness of all our tangled, wild, and out of control hair – and that’s big for middle schoolers! Our present times gave us an historic pandemic – well, we were going to find humanity in it!
Teachers and students all wished me well, virtually, with promises that when it’s all over we will get together and do it right. However, I know that when it’s all over, we will all focus on trying to create some sense of normalcy, unintentionally forgetting the trying times that we have slogged through. As a history teacher, I know that it isn’t the past, but what we learn from the past and how we use it, that bend the arch of the future in positive ways. That is what is important. I hope that is what we do when this uncertain time comes to an end.
I have friends that told me that I should have never shared that dismal 08 Algebra average story. I never saw it as a story of failure, though. I have always thought of it as a story of perseverance, hard work, and finding one’s own way of learning – a story of success that summed up the topic I was teaching. A story that assured its audience that those who came before us – even the ones we consider heroes – had to navigate their own pitfalls, just like us. Our actions are not those of perfect people and that’s okay – that’s human. I want my students to understand that they are capable of achieving positive change if they only try, and yes, it’s okay to fail trying.
For my students, I enjoyed getting up in the morning and going to work. They motivated me. It was always important to teach them more than simply the narrative of history. The greatest thing was to teach them how to use history to better themselves and the world around them. Teaching them organization, responsibility, the value of time, and working together to help them overcome their own Achilles Heel (like my Algebra) so that they may conquer whatever insurmountable things that occur in the future. History really is more about the future than the past. That’s what makes it more than just a core subject – it is useful.
I have been asked multiple times what I’m going to do. I haven’t really come up with a specific answer. I have had 71 days of not working but not retired – basically an entire quarantined summer. Now I have an endless summer break before me that may very well be more of the same. It’s confusing. Frustrating. And quite honestly a little irritating. I like a plan. I like my numbers.
What will I do? For one, I will attempt to learn to live without a schedule. Probably in vain. Mainly, I will find ways to continue to help young folks. They have always made so much more sense to me than adults, and I know that it is through them that we can all have hope. Through them, the paths that we tread can direct us towards a future in which we all can thrive.
Maybe I’ll write more – now that I have no excuse in regard to time. And nothing to count. <>
Mark A. Scott, 25 May 2020
21 paragraphs. 1413 words. Retirement Day 3
Post-Script: Mark’s colleagues from Bellevue Middle School gave him a retirement parade May 27th. Enjoy the festivities on the FaceBook post here.
Mark Scott completed his 33rd and last year of teaching high school students in Shelby County. He was a Preserve America History’s Teacher of the Year recipient in 2010, and led a historic project to save the Presidents Island One Room Schoolhouse. See their blog here.