A Tribute to Gary Rice

Mr. Rice ruined math in college for me.

As a naïve and squeaky-clean freshman, I was dead set on taking Calculus II. Three months prior, I had wrapped up the AP Calculus exam after rigorous preparation with Mr. Rice. It was difficult, but I never learned math more thoroughly than in that middle-of-the-day calculus course. That was my third full year of high school with Mr. Rice: Algebra II, Pre-calc, and then, as a senior, the dreaded monster of math education: Calculus AB. The course material was brutal (it was like philosophy and mathematics had a baby), but Mr. Rice’s systematic pedagogy drilled the fundamentals into our brains. And from the fundamentals, we could do everything else.

Suffice it to say, my high school math education was thorough, organized, and robust. So I insisted to my academic advisor my first week of college that “I must take Calculus II.”

I’ll be just like high school math! I thought. It was not.

Mr. Rice was a legend. Some students feared him and his daunting math courses, some couldn’t get enough of him. Everyone admired him. He stood in the hallway between class quietly whistling his distinct, breathy whistle. You would hear it down the halls before you ever saw him. His whistle was often followed by his delightfully dry sense of humor. If you managed to land a particularly witty joke, you’d hear his soft chuckle. That was the peak of success.

A shroud of mysteriousness followed the oft-mustached math teacher. And his mysteriousness only grew as the annual senior trip approached in the spring. Legends abounded about Mr. Rice at Virginia Beach. Whispers filled the halls in the weeks leading up to the trip: “How does he know when you sneak out of your room?” and “Rumor has it the hotel security gives him access to the surveillance room”. Others noted Gary Rice’s seeming ubiquity: “You’ll be strolling down the boardwalk, blocks away from the hotel, and suddenly, he just appears!” Plans were quietly made to sneak across Virginia Beach Street to the local 7-11. Late-night slurpees to cement the badge of adulthood. There was always a rebellious urge to see if you could outwit the ex-army sniper.

You could not.

Mr. Rice was always 3 steps ahead of you, and so was his teaching: We mapped out an alligator farm in the front lawn of CCS to learn pre-calculus, and he sent us soaring down the gym track in a wheeled office chair to teach us the difference between speed, acceleration, and jerk in calculus. His classroom was always lightly lit, soft jazz playing in the background (I think one class gave him a Spotify gift card? He was a Kenny G fanatic). The day’s lesson was written on the board. His classes were the most organized courses I’ve ever taken. You knew what to expect.

But of course, we didn’t expect everything Mr. Rice did. We didn’t expect his delightful theatrical ability on the stage of The Music Man, his hilarious stories about grading the AP Calc test with hundreds of math teachers, or his mellifluous singing voice. We didn’t always expect his quiet comments or his thoughtful insights. I certainly did not expect the note he wrote me following graduation, a note so touching I could barely read it without becoming overwhelmed with emotion. No, you couldn’t anticipate everything about Mr. Rice.

I eventually realized why calculus in college was nothing like calculus with Mr. Rice. College math was cold. Impersonal. Filled with a whole host of students. The professor didn’t know my name. I barely knew his. And I didn’t realize until that point that my math education had been about so much more than just math: it had been about a relationship with a man I’d grown to love and admire. A man who impacted generations of students with his love, wit, and care.

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