A pure equation: Math teacher shows his students that goals plus passion equals dreams realized

May 20, 2011 1:59:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


There came a moment in one of Johnathan DuFour's math classes one day that every teacher experiences. That moment, when each wonders if anyone cares. 


"I'd been writing equations on the board and turned around; I saw that no one was really paying attention ... and it bothered me," the former space shuttle program engineer said, his voice measured, mellow.  


Chances are, no one in that classroom realized it at the time, but that moment, that particular moment, became pivotal. The Mississippi State University alumnus turned his mind from equations, paused, thought, then pointed to a poster of a snow-covered Mount Everest he keeps on the wall, centered above the white dry erase board. 


"Can you see that red flag on the top of that mountain?" he asked. Silence. A face or two tuned in, puzzled. 


Then, a bit louder: "Can you see that red flag up there?" he repeated, walking among the students, a light in his eye. 


One by one, teenagers began peering at the poster, searching, squinting. A few got up for a closer look, wondering if Mr. DuFour knew what he was talking about. They couldn't spot anything on the top of that snowy paper mountain.  


The flag on a summit that day was imaginary. But, that was about to change. 


The "red flag," DuFour explained to students, is whatever you make it -- a goal, a direction, a dream to work toward. Motivation for paying attention, determining a destiny, becoming engaged in school, in society, in life. And sometimes you have to climb mountains to achieve dreams. 


"Do you see that red flag? We're going to the top and we're going to get it. Who's coming with me?" he challenged the class, and all his others at Columbus High School, including eight International Baccalaureate students who, as a group, became known as the "Eiger 8."  


The two-year IB course load is demanding, requiring initiative and sacrifice. 


Ian Williams, 18, is one of the Eiger 8.  


"Mr. DuFour would tell us how finishing our IB math class was like climbing the North Face of Mount Eiger; it's one of the hardest climbs because it's pretty much a sheer face. .... He'd always try to inspire us, 'Do you see that flag?'"  




Never assume 


Now, it should be said that, at first glance, Johnathan DuFour doesn't fit everyone's idea of the typical teacher. There's the longer hair, the sandals, the ethereal thinking. And, of course, the motorcycle. 


"I'm in the business of busting stereotypes," he laughed. "The day everybody thinks the biker that just went by is a math teacher, I've won." 


Born in San Diego, Calif., he came as a child with his family to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where his father was a Seabee. After serving in the U.S. Army, DuFour earned a degree in computer science from MSU and went on to work with the Stennis Space Center program and Lockheed Martin. 


The year was 2005. Johnathan, his wife, Wendy, and their two young children were living in Waveland, Mississippi, very near the picturesque Gulf of Mexico. On Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina reduced their lives to what would fit in the back of a minivan. 


When Lockheed announced its personnel would have to shift operations to California, DuFour knew the time had come. 


"I knew I wasn't doing what I was meant to do in my life," he shared. Letting go of the economic security of his career was unnerving, but DuFour had long felt the call to teach. The decision was made. 




Altering course 


"All who knew me beheld me with a curious eye. 'What's happening to DuFour?'" he recalled, with wry grin. "When I told them I was returning to MSU to pursue a masters in math, and that my future profession would be teaching, they shook their heads in disbelief." 


But for Johnathan, it was "like the dawning of a new day." He was in pursuit of what was, even then, a "red flag." But he had another. 


"I'd always dreamed of mountain climbing, but at 21, I had an accident that tore ligaments and cartilage in my left knee. I never thought I could climb." 


Fast forward two decades from the accident, and DuFour is challenging his high school students to set goals and scale metaphorical mountains, telling them, "I'll see you at the summit." 


The more he used the analogy, the more he felt the fire.  


"I wanted to go up high into the clouds," he said. "I wanted to make it a reality for myself and my students." He pledged to the Eiger 8 he would climb to honor their completion of their Internal Assessment IB math challenge, a milestone near the end of a two-year curriculum. 


DuFour kept that promise March 16, with a solo ascent of Mount Elbert in Colorado. At 14,440 feet, it's the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains of North America, and the second highest in the contiguous U.S. 




Getting there 


With the destination decided, in January DuFour dedicated himself to a 10-week training regimen. 


"Speed-walking with a heavy backpack provides the best preparation," he recommends. "Seek out sloped terrain and walk up and down. Week by week increase the distance. Mix it with a biking, running and weight lifting. Cardiovascular fitness is most important; leg stamina second most, and muscle strength third most." 


By the week of the climb, Johnathan could bike 10 miles in 30 minutes. He'd done his homework: Researched the mountain, consulted the Ranger district on weather, worked with mountaineering shops on necessary clothing and gear. 


But nothing quite prepared the first-time climber for what lay ahead. 




Reality check 


"Most people think of a climb as a physical challenge, but 80 percent of it is a mental battle because your body will quit way before you need it to," the 42-year-old said, remembering the stress. 


The higher parts of Elbert's trails are covered with snow from November through early July. Average low temperatures at the top in March dip below zero. The treeline ends at about 12,000 feet; the final windswept 2,400 feet is weather-exposed terrain. 


At one point in the ascent, DuFour, tired and sore, questioned whether he could continue. 


"I threw my gear down, gritting my teeth. I thought, 'This can't be happening.' I was really brokenhearted," he admitted. "I just curled up into a ball ... and then I thought about my students and what I would tell them if I gave up." 


Eight and a half hours after his dawn departure, the math teacher reached the literal summit. Stung by wind-driven snow, panting in the thin air, an exhausted DuFour exalted in the moment, even as ice crystals formed on his face and hair.  


"It felt like a homecoming, like the mountains opened their arms wide as if they knew I would arrive," he said. 


At the top, Johnathan pulled off his bulky gloves to take photographs. The most important perhaps was a shot of the Eiger 8 flag he'd made for his IB class and taken up the mountain with him, lashed to a ski pole.  


Fierce winds and frigid temperatures slowed the mind, but the climber soon became aware his fingers weren't responding. He knew the first stages of frostbite were setting in.  


After descending an anxious 1,000 feet, he worked his fingers, biting and rubbing them, to restore use, relieved when feeling returned enough to record a brief video. In it, his breathless voice is all but wind-drowned, but he manages to smile and say into the lens, "The riches of the day are mine." 


At day's end, DuFour leadenly walked off the mountain, a camp axe in his hand, a response to mountain lion tracks. He'd returned a different man. 


"It's the finest way I know of to receive God's gifts. ... It has changed me as a person. I look at my challenges differently now." 




Back home 


IB senior Rachel Stanback said, "When we got back from spring break and he'd climbed the mountain, I thought 'Oh, my word! He actually did this.' But then, I guess we weren't really surprised, because if anyone was going to do it, it would be Mr. DuFour. He's passionate about students and about life in a very different way that's been very inspiring to us." 


Columbus High Principal Craig Shannon praised Du

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.