My favorite classes at Willis High School in the 50s, were all the math classes I took from Mr. Felts. I took Algebra 1, 2 and 3, as well as Plane Geometry, Solid Geometry, and Trigonometry. Whenever I watch “Big Bang” and see Sheldon writing on his big whiteboard, it reminds me of Mr. Felts saying, “Kay, go to the board.” Of course, what I was doing at the board in high school was, by no means, anything close to what was supposed to be going on in that sitcom. But, it brings back good memories to me.
For our homework in Mr. Felts’ class, the answers for all the math problems in the book, were in the back of the book. If you were working on your problems, and didn’t have the same answer as the one in the back of the book, you had to go back over all the steps to find where your mistake was, correct it, and go on to get the correct answer. So, when you were done, you were really done. And you knew you were correct.
He said that’s one of life’s lessons. Math teaches you how to think. The second thing to know is that our tests in his classes were all open-book. He said that’s because that’s how life is. If you need to know something, you can go look it up. Of course, you have to know where to look. For instance, if you need to know how much air you need in the tires for your car, you can open the front door and you will find the answer inside the door frame.
He had certain things he liked to talk about, too. One was the Law of Averages. Since it was Halloween recently, I’ll use the children coming for trick or treat as an example of such a law. From the moment we turned on our porch light, children began to come to our door for candy. It was a steady stream of 2 or 3 children all the time, from 6 until 7:30 p.m. By the time it was over, around 200 children had come to our door.
That was the Law of Averages at work. If it wasn’t for said law, we could have all 200 kids trying to get on our porch at the very same time. A second example of said law, could be a potluck supper. When I have attended suppers where everyone brings anything they wish to fix, it always turns out to be a wonderful variety of food. Because of the law of averages, you won’t find everyone bringing a pie. (You get the idea.)
In my younger days, I wanted to be a high school math teacher just like him. I liked that he never graded our homework. He just marked off our names in his grade book when we turned in our papers. His theory was that if you didn’t do your homework, you would not be able to pass his tests.
He also had a way of standing at the board and doing a lot of writing and without turning around, he would say things like “Jim, go spit out your gum.” And still never turn around to see if Jim did. I also remember him talking about things like “All squirrels are small animals, but not all small animals are squirrels.” Often you will hear older people say, “I wish I knew then, what I know now.”
But, when it comes to all my math education, I wish I knew now, what I knew then. Because, as I sit here today, I would be hard pressed to be able to pass any of his tests, even with knowing that the answers are in the back of the book or that the test would be open-book. But, I will credit his classes with furthering my thinking ability.
I had a chance to get to know his daughter. She told me that when her dad died, he had prearranged for the florist to deliver 2 bouquets of flowers to his home. They were to be there for them when they got home from his funeral. One for his wife and the other for his daughter. They were to thank each of them for all they had done for him.
I remember a quote that said, “If you can read this, Thank a Teacher.” Some years ago, I decided to send him a note of Thanks for being such a great teacher. By then he was 87 years old. He wrote back telling me how surprised and pleased he was to get my note, since it had been 23 years since he retired.
Since I always called him Mr. Felts, I was surprised to see that he signed the note as ‘Ray Felts.’ I never thought of him having a real first name. He was just that wonderful teacher who had always told us to live our life, knowing that all the answers to any and all of our problems are out there somewhere. You just had to know where to look.