Halkias: Flying with Mr. Miskell

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by award-winning journalist Telly Halkias. It first appeared in the Bennington Banner.

As area schools are gearing up for fall, my thoughts often turn to devoted teachers entrusted with our children. Recently, this took on a special meaning while surfing the Internet. On Cornell University’s alumni website, an unforeseen obituary stunned me:

“’53, BME ‘54, MS ’65 — Terry F. Miskell of Freeport, Maine, September 11, 2005; mathematics teacher; veteran; pilot;active in community and alumni affairs.”

Everyone has that teacher who made a difference in more than just the classroom, and Mr. Miskell was mine. Trained as an engineer and having served as a Navy fighter pilot before turning to education, he had been a longtime stalwart in Boston-area schools.

The late Terry F. Miskell, circa 1975, from a yearbook photo, in Athens, Greece.

When presented an opportunity to teach American students in Greece – where I was a young U.S. expatriate – Mr.Miskell didn’t hesitate. He had previously taught my sisters and was well known to me through their vignettes. So when entering ninth grade, I was excited to be in his geometry class.

But all didn’t go as planned. For the first time I experienced difficulty with math, struggling through the entire fall semester. I was too proud to request assistance, believing my instincts for the subject would suddenly return like a prodigal son seeking redemption. Relenting after Christmas break, I sought out Mr. Miskell.

He had me meet him after school that same day. In his classroom, the first thing Mr. Miskell said was: “We don’t have much time, Telly, so let’s get to it.” With blackboards on three walls, he strolled over to the first slate, picked up a piece of chalk, and for the next two hours put on a teaching clinic that salvaged my year, and perhaps much more.

Working his way around the room and using every inch of chalkboard, Mr. Miskell explained the continuum of mathematics, and how geometry fit in. Then he narrowed his dissertation to my specific weakness with logical proofs. Once he identified how I might improve, Mr. Miskell tied my freshman problems back to the start of his lesson, with the greater picture of math.

The late Terry F. Miskell, a man with four academic degrees, a devoted wife and three wonderful children, gave me more on that winter afternoon than I could ever repay. When my thoughts turn to him now, I see all the writing on those blackboards, and an eraser clasped in his one hand, still dusty with the residue of youth.

His tone never wavered and his pace never faltered. I started taking notes but stopped halfway through; I didn’t need them. Like the last piece falling into a puzzle, everything Mr. Miskell said painted a complete picture. Behind my grin I felt stupid having never asked him for help. When he finally put down the chalk, Mr. Miskell turned and smiled confidently, saying: “Telly, I think you’ll be just fine.”

Walking out into that January evening of 1975, I had no doubt I would ace the semester’s class, which I did.

But I was happiest when visiting Mr. Miskell’s homeroom during my free periods. Leaning forward in a front row seat, I soaked up his tales of past glory flying Navy jets, and of his current aviation pride and joy, a Piper Cub back home in New England. When not previewing topics for a future class, Mr. Miskell seemed content to lose himself in azure dreams, and I was his wingman for every flight.

Seven years later, I gripped the college diploma containing my own engineering degree, and recalled our times together. Dodging the graduation day crowds with family in tow, what I didn’t know was Mr. Miskell had driven from Boston to New York to witness my milestone, as if seeing his job through to its successful completion.

Today, my guilt at failing to reconnect with him in later life is surpassed only by surprise that Mr. Miskell was in his 70s when cancer finally overwhelmed him. To me, he’ll always be frozen in his mid-40s, younger than I am now. I believed we would run into each other every few years. Yet even in death, Mr. Miskell had solved that equation: Time, as he had noted before the tutorial, is always working against us.

The late Terry F. Miskell, a man with four academic degrees, a devoted wife and three wonderful children, gave me more on that winter afternoon than I could ever repay. When my thoughts turn to him now, I see all the writing on those blackboards, and an eraser clasped in his one hand, still dusty with the residue of youth.

I also see a lone Navy jet peeling off the deck of an aircraft carrier and banking into that sapphire mist where sea meets sky, its chalk-like vapor trail sketching an arc even Euclid could love.

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  • Robert Pine

    First class, Telly, first class. I still think of those few teachers who turned my life around to this day.

  • Frederick Ley

    Hello Telly,
    I just did a search on the net for Terry Miskell and sadly came across your posting of his passing. I to used enjoy speaking with him about different issues and his Navy carrier life. He once showed me a nice postcard that he had received from the U.S., I commented on how nice the image on the card was and he gave me the card. To this day, I still have that card. It is addressed to his three daughters. I don’t know if our paths ever crossed at ACS. I attended form 1967 up to my graduation in 1975. Have a great day and thanks for the posting. -Fred

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