I first learned about the quest for excellence from my high school Geometry teacher, Miss Frieda Riley. On submitting a proof for her approval, her usual reaction would be: “It’s OK. Can you do better?” What she meant was make it simpler, more streamlined, more efficient.
If I applied enough effort and better insights came to me I would sometimes be rewarded by words like: “That’s good, Jerry. That’s what we are looking for.” Miss Riley prized efficiency, what mathematicians call “elegance.” She showed me what Emily Dickinson had in mind when she wrote: “Euclid alone looked on Beauty bare.”
Valedictorian of her high school and college classes. Frieda Riley could have been a star teacher at virtually any school in the country. She chose to return to her home in the southern West Virginia coal fields. She blessed the students of Big Creek High School with new insights, better ways of thinking and approaching problems.
Fried Riley died of Hodgkin’s Disease at age 31. Today she is honored in the National Museum of Education, but her most important legacy is the countless students she inspired–and equipped–to meet challenges.
Homer Hickam was one of these students. He escaped the coal fields to become a NASA engineer. Miss Riley played a prominent role in his memoir, “Rocket Boys.” It was later made into the 1999 movie named “October Sky.” Laura Dern played the Miss Riley role. Dern did a great job, but the real Miss Riley was oh so much better.