Tuesday, December 6, 2016

He made a difference.

At a time when I was lost and alone and questioning, my math teacher, Mr. Tim Boerner, made a tremendous positive impact on my life. And now he's gone.

My parents were in an ugly divorce. We moved from Arizona to Texas to Kansas to Nebraska in a matter of months. My brothers and I knew no one in Nebraska. We were all new kids in a small town. Thanks to differences in school districts across States and moving to a small town, I was also skipped up a grade. In a weird transition, I spent three days in 8th grade before I was moved up to the high school, in a different building across town. In a town of 1,600, everyone knew everything, and knew I didn't fit in.

Mr. Boerner (I'll never be able to call him by his first name) taught math. He also ran the Math club, and encouraged me to join. I never thought I was very good at math, but I liked it, and his encouragement made me feel like it was okay to just like math. He took the time to take our small town group of students to Math events around the local area, and even to the University of Nebraska Lincoln (UNL)'s Math Day every year. There we got to interact with over 1000 other students, tour the campus, compete on teams with timed questions, and take individual exams. I realize that may not sound like a lot of fun to some people, but to me, it was incredible, and something I looked forward to every year. I got to do all of this - to fit in - because of Mr. Boerner.

Mr. Boerner was nerdy and gruff. He saw potential in all of us. He got frustrated with students who didn't pay attention. High schoolers are an unforgiving group, and he took us on. He answered our unending questions and worked with anyone who asked for help. He gave us opportunities to see how math could be used. He didn't tell us, he showed us. He showed me that diligence and practice matter.

He showed me how I could push myself to learn, even when things are difficult. He showed me that being challenged by something doesn't mean I should give up. He showed me how to persevere. That is key in education, but especially in mathematics, where I've heard over and over that I must be smart for doing math.  I'm as smart as anyone. More than that, I don't give up. And, I have to thank Mr. Boerner for that.

I've thought about him often over the years, but am sorry I never told him. I never told him how much he gave me something to look forward to at a time when I didn't know what was going on in my life. I never told him how his consistent and logical demeanor was an inspiration to me. I saw his unwavering dedication to teaching, to his students, and it made a lasting impact on how I approach the world.  I've since earned a B.S. Mathematics and a Ph.D. Bioinformatics & Genomics. I get to teach hundreds of students every year, both formally and informally about science, including math in biology. I see some struggle, and I continue to be inspired by Mr. Boerner's example to never give up on them. He was tough, fair, and (perhaps unknowingly) helped me find solace and self-confidence at a very uncertain time. I don't know how I can ever pay it forward enough.

If there is one thing, I hope you can take away from this, it is that Mr. Boerner made a difference. I don't know what would have happened if I'd never known him, but I know that his life made mine better.

Thank you, Mr. Boerner.