Thursday, June 17, 2010

The funny thing about life is that it is usually when there is something that you don’t want to do, or don’t think is really going to amount to much of anything, that the most memorable moments of our lives occur.

Such was the case with Kuemper Catholic High School calculus instructor Bill Kane after being notified he was going to be receiving an award.

“I got a letter in the mail six weeks ago maybe, and it said I had been nominated by Mariah (Kuemper student Mariah Railsback),” he said. “Then probably three or four weeks ago I got an e-mail inviting me to Kansas City (Mo.). I really didn’t know if we were going to go.”

Kane, who has taught math for 37 years, 34 of those at Kuemper, said he wasn’t sure he could make the trip on June 4 and spare the time away from his painting business, Kando. Besides, he figured this would be one of your standard awards ceremonies.

“We didn’t know how big this thing was,” Kane admitted after having agreed to attend the ceremony.

Kane had no idea that he would be one of only three educators recognized as a Nobel Educator of Distinction by the National Society of High School Scholars, and that Claes Nobel, of Nobel Peace Prize family fame, would be personally presenting him with the award.

Arriving at the Kansas City Convention Center, Kane and his wife, Vickie, saw a college fair taking place on the premises.

“I walked through it a little bit, and I noticed that there were only two U.S. universities,” he said. “The rest were schools like the University of Dublin, Cambridge, I think Oxford was there, and the University of Melbourne.”

Still not realizing the significance of the awards ceremony they were attending, Kane and his wife took seats in the auditorium about midway up on the aisle. One of the coordinators approached them and said there was a reserved seat up front for him. They were welcome to stay where they were, but that would mean a longer walk to the stage for Kane.

“I thought we would just have to stand up or something,” he said. “I didn’t know I was going to have to go on stage.”

Things were starting to fall into place, but it was not until he was invited up to receive his award that the full import of what was happening struck.

“Finally, Mr. Nobel spoke, Claes Nobel,” said Kane. “We had been there an hour and I was thinking, ‘What is going on?’ After he got done, they said they had come to the most important part of the day. I was the first one called on stage, and Mr. Nobel handed me my award.”

Kane was asked by Mr. Nobel if he would like to say a few words. Not wanting to speak to the crowd, he politely declined.

“He asked me what I teach, and I said calculus,” Kane recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, you are more a man of numbers than of words.’ Everybody laughed, and I just got off the stage.”

At the conclusion of the ceremony, a reception was held to further recognize the three teachers. After shaking hands with some of the most prestigious names in education (the heads of several universities were present for a North American Free Trade Agreement conference), a stunned Kane and his wife left the event and headed for home.

“Neither one of us could believe what we had been through,” said Kane. “We just thought it was going to be a little deal and there would be a lot of us there, and there were only the three of us. And we almost didn’t go. I would have felt terrible.”

Kane called Railsback after returning to Carroll, not only to tell her about the experience, but to thank her, yet again, for her nomination.

Railsback, who was unable to attend because the ceremony conflicted with an anniversary celebration for her parents, said that Kane came to mind immediately when hearing of the award.

Having become a member of the National Society of High School Scholars in May, she was able to more freely access the awards information.

“It was talking about how teachers inspired you and which one had the biggest impact on your life. When I was sitting there and I was reading the question, Mr. Kane just popped into my mind,” she said. “He is a teacher where it is a class you look forward to every day.”

Not only did he make math more fun by adding some laughter to the equations, he was always accessible to his students.

“He is not going to just give you something and say, ‘Figure it out,’” said Railsback. “OK, he might, but he is there all along to help you. He wants you to do well.”

From being at school to answer questions at 6:30 or 7 in the morning to organizing extra study sessions to help students prepare for the calculus advance-placement test that kept him there until as late as 9 at night, Kane made sure that the students were put first.

Kane’s example has been the driving force for several of his past students to pursue careers in math, engineering fields and/or teaching. Railsback, who graduated from Kuemper in May, is one of those.

She plans to study mathematics at the College of St. Benedict’s and St. John’s University in Minnesota.

“I am not sure what I will do, I am kind of trying to keep that open, but I figured that it was the area I was interested in, and I think that if I can find something I do like, I am going to be happier,” she said. “If I wouldn’t have had him for a teacher this many years, I probably wouldn’t be as interested in the math field.”

Railsback wanted to be sure that Kane knew how much she appreciated the guidance and direction he supplied.

“I am just glad that he had a chance to get recognized for all the hard work he puts in because I think he deserves it,” she added. “Sometimes teachers don’t get that.”

As for Kane, he wasn’t finished showing his appreciation just yet either.

“It is unbelievable when a teacher is recognized because of students,” he said. “That is pretty special and it means a lot more to us. Thank you again, and again and again.”