For more than 20 years, in addition to my normal job, I have taught at various colleges and universities. Some have been good experiences, others have been an effort in dealing with educational bureaucracy. The one teaching job that I have always loved and will continue to do is that of teaching for a university on an Air Force base.

Saint Leo University is based in Saint Leo, Florida, less than an hour from Tampa. In addition to their main campus, they have education centers in seven states, including various military bases. I have taught for them for close to 20 years on an Air Force base within five minutes of my regular day job with the space program.

From the start, I found teaching military folks to be very rewarding. Unlike some of my experiences with other colleges and universities, all of my military students seem to “want” to be there. They work hard, they are appreciative and they are extremely respectful.

I often tell them in the classroom that being there is my most favorite time of the day – because it is. I teach college mathematics and statistics courses, helping students get both their two-year degrees through the Community College of the Air Force and their four-year degrees for promotions and life after their military careers.

Students come back from time to time to eat with me, show me their children and let me know that they have completed their degree. I consider them family and tell them this often. I share my childhood experiences and tell stories in the classroom. It makes it a little more interesting in my opinion.

My students know that my mathematical abilities started with my Daddy teaching my brothers and me math (and probability) with a pair of dice, a deck of cards or a box of dominos. He was a sailor, with a love of life and games of chance.

One of the stories that I often share with my class is about all the mini bikes I was around growing up. Popularized in the late 1960’s, “Popular Mechanics” magazine had an article with plans on building a mini bike. All you needed was an engine from a lawnmower and a “neighbor with a welding torch.”

Somewhere in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, my Papa (grandfather) began collecting various mini bike frames, wheels and parts. He rarely had one that actually ran, but often had frames with two good wheels and no engine. In other words, you could ride it down a hill, but you had to push it back up. I would spend many Sunday afternoons at my grandparents in rural Alabama doing just that.

In the meantime, my Daddy usually had a mini bike for use to ride on. It was about as reliable as a Ford Pinto. I’m sorry that is not true – it was much less reliable than a Ford Pinto. If it started, the chain was always coming off or breaking or some other little issue that a little boy generally couldn’t figure out.

Then again, it had an old lawn mower engine on it and generally a lot of rust.

I still loved the mini bikes, with or without an engine and regardless of whether it was running or not.

A “Chief Master Sergeant” is the ninth, and highest, enlisted rank in the U.S. Air Force. I’ve only had the pleasure of having one in classes through the years. He was finishing a degree for his children and his grandchildren. When he walked into a classroom, the Airmen were always in awe… He was a big deal, but you would never know it.

He was kind, he was caring and he was very intelligent. He was a just a few years away from retiring and was a joy to have in a class.

The other day, I was up at the board, doing what I do, teaching a class about various percentage calculations and having a good time. I noticed a crowd of people outside my door. Folks from the university and other staff from the educational center where classes are held.

Sometimes folks will gather to hear my stories or laugh about my accent, but this was a bigger crowd than usual. One of the folks noted, “Someone is here to see you.” I said, “Great, send them in.”

It was the Chief Master Sergeant I had taught a few years back and he was pushing a mini bike into my classroom… A mini bike that he had built with his own hands and it looked sharp. He was retiring in a couple of weeks and wanted to bring it by as a gift for what I had done for him and other Airmen.

I lost it… It was one of those moments in life that I will always remember…

And yes, I took it home and filled it with gas and took it for a ride.

 

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