Finding Your Greatness

I firmly believe that each of us brings with us into this life skills and talents that combine to create personal greatness. Parents and teachers are uniquely positioned to encourage and nurture young people in discovering their greatness, something of which I was powerfully reminded as I was trying to decide what passions to pursue in my retirement years. It was another example of God preparing me for the impact I would have in the years ahead.

It all actually started much earlier while I was teaching junior high school mathematics in the early 1970s. During that time I also earned a master’s degree in mathematics at Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit.

Twenty years later, I reconnected with that school when WSU President Irvin Reid took me and my wife, Sue, to dinner and the opera in New York City. While together we discussed many of WSU’s educational and community initiatives in and around Detroit—both those that were then underway as well as those planned for the future. I was extremely impressed with the school’s long-term strategic plan, which included significant new building on campus, increased scholarship programs, expanded research, and much greater outreach to the Detroit community. In particular, given my own interest in and experience teaching mathematics, I was fascinated by their already-successful teaching program for students in the public school system. They call it the “Math Corps.”

The Math Corps was started more than twenty years ago by two WSU math professors, Steve Kahn and Leonard Boehm, and involves students from fifth grade through twelfth grade. The program is not designed to cater to the gifted; rather, it involves ordinary (by most standards “remedial”) students who can ultimately get college credit for calculus proficiency while still in high school. It has particularly had a tremendous success rate in providing high-quality educational support to inner-city kids, who historically have scored poorly on standardized math tests.

The Math Corps also conducts a summer program for more than two hundred students and hires seventy teachers who have been trained by Steve and Leonard. Many of these teachers are former students of the Math Corps who have gone on to earn college degrees and are now entering the teaching field. Many others have gone on to earn degrees and pursue careers in mathematics and other math-related professions.

The program reminds me of the movie Stand and Deliver, which tells the true story of an innovative and dedicated math teacher in the inner city schools of Los Angeles who teaches calculus to groups of high school students. The students achieved unprecedented pass rates on advanced-placement calculus tests and received college credit for first-year calculus. In fact, the pass rates were so high that the students were falsely accused of cheating. Those same kinds of impressive results were being achieved by the Math Corps in Detroit.

I had the experience of seeing the program in action twice—once in a classroom and a second time in the unlikely setting of a professional baseball game.

Five or six years ago, Sue and I attended an inner-city fifth-grade class taught by Leonard Boehm at Thurgood Marshall Elementary. We were amazed that only three weeks into the school year, students in this typical fifth-grade class were excited, engaged, and extremely responsive to Leonard’s teaching style. The students participated enthusiastically and were treated very respectfully by Leonard and their fellow classmates. Having taught junior high mathematics myself for seven years, I was astounded by the difficulty of the material, which the students seemed to be mastering very quickly.

That was our first opportunity to see the program in action. But while I’ve consistently donated financially to this worthy effort over the years, it wasn’t until the summer of 2009 that I had my second opportunity to see why it is so successful. That’s the day I learned the rest of its remarkable success story in a most unlikely setting.

That July, I asked Steve and Leonard to join me on a Friday afternoon at a Detroit Tigers baseball game. Leonard couldn’t make it because of a family emergency, but Steve came with his two adopted children. Sue and I adopted three children and, like Steve, loved to involve them in leisure activities, so I immediately established a rapport with him.

I don’t remember anything about what happened on the baseball diamond that afternoon, but what I learned from Steve is something I’ll never forget. His words left me choked up and teary-eyed for most of the game.

It may surprise you to learn that we didn’t talk about mathematics at all. Instead, Steve talked about his experience of twenty-five years ago when he volunteered to teach math to a group of the toughest inner-city kids in the Detroit School District. They were kids who had been expelled from their regular school and sent to a detention-like special facility for disturbed and delinquent students. It was a seemingly impossible task for a new teacher, and in the process of confronting that challenge head-on, Steve discovered his own greatness.

As I listened, what became very clear to me was Steve’s unwavering belief that every human being on the planet has inherent greatness. After talking about the kids in that inner-city school, he went on to share other tangible examples of greatness. He told me about his father, a beloved clothing storeowner in Brooklyn, whose tremendous impact on the community was honored by a farewell parade down Gerritson Avenue following his death. He then remembered Stephen Holder, a former remedial math student with no parents who was struggling to raise his siblings on his own—and who went on to earn a master’s degree in mathematics and become a highly regarded math teacher. As the players on the field pitched and batted balls, Steve shared numerous other stories from his own classroom experiences in which kids without hope were inspired and encouraged to become effective teachers and professionals in other math-related careers.

Steve repeatedly emphasized the need for all of us to seek out and discover our inner greatness and to utilize our God-given talents. It’s a philosophy the Math Corps teaches with its emphasis on mutual respect and the discovery of each individual’s personal greatness. The Math Corps likely teaches math better than any other program in the country, but its real strength is in giving students self-confidence, self-esteem, mutual respect, and, most importantly, a desire to find the “greatness within.”

I privately thanked God during every inning of that baseball game for the incredible impact Steve and Leonard have had on thousands — perhaps millions — of lives as their message was delivered not only to their students, but also by their students.

I left the game that day forever changed and wondering if I had yet discovered my own “greatness.” I couldn’t help but think that Leonard and Steve haven’t made a lot of money, run major companies, or spoken to large audiences around the world, but they have found their individual greatness — and in so doing have impacted lives in a way few people ever do!

I’m certain God gave me the gift of this life-changing experience with Steve to encourage me to search for and discover my own personal greatness in a way I never seemed to have time to pursue before. I hope sharing this story will motivate you to do the same, for your own greatness can become your gift to a world desperate for what you have to offer.