25 years ago, in Room 211…

I always blather on this page about the challenges (mostly the mistakes) of leadership. And when people ask me about when I got interested in the subject, I have one of two answers.

Usually, I make a flippant statement that I feel I’ve been mismanaged a great deal in my career and that I don’t want to make the same mistakes with the next generation of talent. Or else I talk about working in the mental-health field and being exposed to a fascinating segment called “organizational counseling.” In other words, figuring out how to change a dysfunctional culture from the top down.

But as financial TV is commemorating the loss of the Challenger crew back in 1986, I realize that my first exposure to a good example-setter was my homeroom teacher, Mr. Allison, back at good old Francis McClure Middle School.

It was in our sixth-grade science class that we watched with hope and wonder as Christa McAuliffe stepped into the shuttle as the first teacher to venture into space. And it was merely seconds later that we saw the Challenger erupt into a ball of fire and dust. We were humbled and horrified, and we hoped that our crappy television (without cable) on its rickety cart had simply short-circuited.

We moved through the rest of the day in a haze, and soon enough it was time for homeroom the next day.

I was never a huge fan of Mr. Allison. I don’t know why. I think I had a hard time discerning his sincerity. He taught language and spelling, areas in which I excelled, and I was always overly critical of English teachers in general.

But before our daily moment of silence (do schools still do that?), he revealed to us that he had applied to be the teacher sent into space. And that if the program opened up again, he would do it in a heartbeat.

As some of my peers snickered under their breath, no doubt wishing they could have herded all of their teachers into the Challenger, I was overcome with respect for this guy, on whom I had played my share of practical jokes just to get a rise out of his mostly stoic demeanor.

Now here he was, plain as day, saying he was that eager to do something for the sake of education that he would risk everything for the chance to bring back whatever it was that Christa McAuliffe would have learned in space. And that no deadly explosion would keep him away from the chance to be a part of the next historical journey.

I never told him how much his amazing attitude affected me. Twenty-five years later, I have no idea where he is or whether he’s still teaching or even alive for that matter. But he taught me so much in that moment … that the quiet ones have dreams too … that sacrifices in the name of education know no bounds … that the most-effective teaching moments don’t happen in the classroom … that I, too, could have been convinced to go on the space shuttle if I were following someone who believed wholeheartedly in the mission.

Later that day in our English class, he asked us to write essays on how we were impacted by what happened the prior day. I remember being so thrilled that I exchanged papers with the class heartthrob (Jimmy Skalican) and that my essay brought tears to his beautiful blue eyes. (*swoon*)

Can’t tell you exactly what I wrote, but I suspect Mr. Allison’s name was somewhere in there. In any case, I came out of that tragedy with a whole new outlook on the educators with whom I spent my days, and one in particular.

Needless to say, I stopped playing pranks on the guy and quietly absorbed everything else he had to teach me. And while I forget how to diagram a sentence properly and I couldn’t define a gerund if you held a gun to my head, I count Mr. Allison as one of the best educators in a questionable public school system.

Hat-tip to you, Mr. Allison, wherever you are. Thank you for being the first person to truly help to shape the person I turned out to be.

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