High school mourns beloved math teacher

Posted: Friday, December 10, 2010

This equation isn't adding up.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Students taking a quick nap in the commons before class no longer hear a certain math teacher crowing at them. Others no longer hear the joyful twitter of, "it's math time!" being shouted.

Yaakoosge Daakahidi High School students and staff lost a beloved math teacher when James Bennett or "Mr. B", died unexpectedly Sunday. He was 58.

While Mr. B's quirky smile and matching personality will no longer guide students through math problems - and life's troubles - they cherish the lessons he taught.

Yaakoosge held a memorial Thursday evening and family, friends and past and present students packed the commons to celebrate Bennett's life. There was no shortage of hugs being shared and tears being shed. Many donned Hawaiian-style shirts in his honor.

Joan Walser, a colleague of Bennett's both at Yaakoosge and their prior school in Fairbanks, said there are two lessons people should learn based on how Bennett lived his life.

"We have the personal power to continually evolve," she said. "We are a dynamic being."

She said Bennett was a larger man when they worked together in Fairbanks and had talked about working on his health. When Walser came to Juneau, she was greeted by a man she didn't immediately recognize - Bennett - who had shed pounds.

The second lesson is that life is like working on a proof.

"When you're working on a proof, the idea is to prove an identity," the English teacher explained of the math concept. "There essentially are two expressions, you modify and manipulate one to show it is equal to the other."

Walser said Bennett's death is an example of a proof. People have the memories of life with Bennett, and now there is a void created by his absence.

"Just like a proof, we need to modify and manipulate and continue to celebrate the goodness of his life and move past the sadness," she said.

Vann Bennett, Mr. B's brother, gave a little more insight to who James Bennett was. He said the math chain started with their grandfather, who was an accountant. That passion has traveled all the way to Bennett's son.

"James had a very emotional relationship with math that he was driven to share with his son and his students," Vann said. "He believed everyone could understand math if it was properly explained. He was concerned about the welfare of his students and colleagues. I think this school was the ideal perfect job for him. He was the happiest here that I ever remembered."

Vann felt Bennett was a good teacher not just because of the family math tradition.

"James also brought his own special talents," Vann said. "He was very capable of generating respect in the classroom. This is in part because he was a very challenging and difficult student. He knew all the tricks."

But what made Bennett a solid teacher was his time in the military, as he had an issue with authority because he couldn't deal with meaningless orders. Ultimately, the experience helped him learn authority in his role as a teacher.

Students shared a heartfelt loss with someone who was not only their teacher - but also their rock, their mentor, their friend.

One student, who didn't identify himself, said he was in Bennett's C.A.R.E.S. (a dropout prevention program) class.

"He actually inspired me to keep going in math," the student said. "... We became friends and we would sit and talk about life. He would speak about his family with so much pride."

Bennett urged him to keep up with his goals no matter how small or silly they seem.

Most of the students said Bennett was either the reason they were able to pass math or graduate. Many said he encouraged them and inspired them to graduate, or follow that path.

Many students said Bennett was their favorite teacher. But in their memorials, they chose to reflect not only how he helped them learn the math they struggled with, but also on his quirky side. For instance, Bennett had a habit of taking a marker and plopping a dot squarely in the middle of his forehead whenever he made a mistake writing on the white board.

A Yaakoosge graduate, Jackie, has a service dog. She remembers checking the attendance list to make sure it was accurate and noticed Buddy was on it. Bennett told her if Buddy missed the class she was to bring him for detention - whether she stayed or not.

"'B' was always saying that my service dog Buddy could do advanced calculus," she said.

Another student, Delores, also appreciated his humor and his skill.

"He had a sense of humor no one could really understand, but we all loved him," she said. "He had ways of teaching us math, there's so many hard examples in books. He always gave us the simplest problems for our formula."

She said seeing a substitute in Bennett's room is incredibly hard.

"I don't know who he is," she said. "He's scary. ... I know why the substitute scares me Mr. B, he's your sub. I appreciate everything you have ever done for me. Mr. B will always have a special place in my heart."

Many students said Mr. B was the only teacher they could really talk to, who they really felt cared about them.

Several students admitted they had been "problem children" for him, but noted Bennett had the uncanny ability to always one-up them and get them to learn what they needed. Aurora was one of them. She said she would throw tantrums and get up and leave the computer out of frustration with the problems. She would come back and he'd be patiently waiting to continue.

"He would call my mom 3-4 times a day and say 'Aurora's having problems again," she said. "What I didn't know, is he would call my mom even on my good days and tell her how much I accomplished and how much he believed in me."

While Bennett reveled in hashing out equations, he had enthusiasm to share the math in everything - from art to sleep - with everyone. Latavia, a Yaakoosge student, shared one such equation that reflected Bennett's philosophy on adaptation.

"He told me the only equation he couldn't solve was the equation to his life," she said. "No matter how close he got, it always changed."

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

Editor's note: Many students interviewed for this story did not provide their last names.

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