Teacher Appreciation: The Enlightenment Of Billy

Introduction: The Duchess and I spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Kansas City with our friends, Neil and Irene Ellis (ongoing readers may be familiar with the Ellis clan from Neil Ellis Photos and other posts). During this visit, one of the retold tales was this story about Neil’s days as a teacher, which I first posted Mar 20, 2006.

If I am ever a contestant on Family Feud (if, say, I’ve died and been condemned to hell), and I’m asked, “Which occupation will be chosen by the greatest number of people to complete the following sentence?”

I would be a great __________.

I’m confident that the correct answer, by a wide margin, would be teacher.

Now, I acknowledge that the conviction that I would be a great teacher is indeed an element of my own self-concept. I also, however, recognize that the conviction that I would be a great teacher is, at least in my case, incredibly, tragically, catastrophically, irrevocably, and dangerously wrong. It turns out that if the student is psychologically mature and motivated – at a level approximating desperation – to learn whatever I’m offering, I then  manage to edge just over the threshold from Educational Impairment to qualify as a Crappy Teacher, the criteria for which follow:

  • Does not physically harm students without firing a warning shot
  • Does not knowingly supply erroneous information to students “just for giggles”
  • Knows when to quit

I am consequently suffused with gratitude for and admiration of good teachers. So, from time to time, this blog offers an appreciation of teachers. Today’s saga concerns a special moment of instructional inspiration experienced by one of my buddies who recently retired from teaching high school science. Some of the identifying details have been changed, but the essence of the story is unaltered.


Third Period Chemistry I Class; Room 238 at a consolidated high school in the Ozarks


Billy: Billy is a well-liked, brawny, 6’5″ Junior who is an All-Conference Second Team running back and part-time Walmart Auto Center associate. While Billy can tune his 1971 Dodge Charger using only pliers, a crescent wrench, and a roll of duct tape and spent the last week of his shop class building a black box that has brought the magic of free cable TV to his family’s estate at #36 Green Meadows Trailer Park, he is, alas, struggling in Chem I.

Mr. Ellis: Mr. Ellis is Billy’s chemistry instructor of record, locally renowned golfing guru, expert birder, weekend jock, all around good guy, and, when the need arises (cue fanfare) – Master Teacher.

The Incident

Mr. Ellis: To write the formula for certain compounds containing a polyatomic ion such as sulfate, SO4, it is sometimes necessary to put parentheses around the (SO4) and then add a subscript outside the parentheses such as (SO4)2 in order to balance the charges in the compound. For example, Pb (SO4)2

Billy: (raising his hand) So why don’t you just write it as SO8?

Mr. Ellis: (patiently) Well Billy, sulfate’s name is SO4. We want to show that we need two of them.

Billy: Right. So why not just write SO8? It’s easier.

Mr. Ellis: (less patiently) But if you do that, you don’t have sulfate. You see Billy, SO4 is sulfate’s name.

Billy: (frustrated) OK … but I still think SO8 would be faster.

Mr. Ellis: (jugulars bulging, but still in control, pauses momentarily, sighs, and stares at the ceiling, and then, … inspiration) Billy, let me ask you a question. If your dad sends you down to the store for two Colt 45 tall boys, what do you look for?

Billy: My fake ID? (class laughter)

Mr. Ellis: No Billy, in the store, what do you look for?

Billy: Well, two Colt 45 tall boys, I guess.

Mr. Ellis: Right! But according to what you told me before, you should be looking for a Colt 90. Two Colt 45’s would be a Colt 90, right?

Billy: There’s no such thing as a Colt 90, Mr. Sci……. (he pauses dramatically in mid-sentence, a hush falls over the room, all eyes are on Billy as his face takes on the beatific aspect emblematic of profound enlightenment, which, in Billy’s case, is not dissimilar to the expression of one finding relief after six days of constipation) Ohhhhh … I think I see what you mean Mr. Ellis, two SO4 groups. I get it.

Mr. Ellis: (smiling) Riiiiigghht.

Just another day in the life of
ta da da dahhhhMASTER TEACHER!


Neil Ellis: Neil is great friend who plays a respectable round of golf, identifies unseen birds by their calls, completes the New York Times Friday Crossword in ink, and snaps a heck of a photo. His photos are featured here at AllanShowalter.com and can be found collected at Neil Ellis Photos.

One thought on “Teacher Appreciation: The Enlightenment Of Billy

  1. Looks like Neil has this teaching thing down. Nice style. Since he’s following up Leonard as a subject of interest I believe a video of him in action may be what’s needed to keep my interest. I need a bit more to “rate this professor”. Thank you.

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