A fast-talking man in his mid-thirties paced back and forth in front of my freshman debate class, warning us about his high expectations. We were special, he declared on our first day at Oak Park High School in Kansas City, Mo. All of us had been identified by our teachers as academically gifted. But we were in high school now. There would be no shortcuts to excellence. Excuses would not be tolerated. Only those who worked hard would shine.
Suddenly, Richard Rice halted in mid-sentence and stared at me. "You know," he said, "you're black!"
Every head swiveled toward me, but I didn't slink in my chair or cringe from embarrassment. Somehow, I knew he wasn't trying to be offensive.
"Yes, I am," I replied.
"You are the first black kid I've ever had," he said, smiling broadly, before jumping back into his lecture as if nothing had happened. It was an odd beginning to one of the most important academic relationships of my life.
Richard Rice was no ordinary teacher. I entered high school not even quite sure what debate was. I left his classes four years later as an accomplished debater, a confident orator, and a fearless actor who could perform humorous monologues in front of large crowds, family members and friends. Under Mr. Rice's tutelage, I qualified for the national tournament of the National Forensics League not once, but twice.
Even today, I'm not sure what made Mr. Rice such a great teacher. He was achingly human. He tended to blurt out whatever he was thinking. And even when he didn't, his face was so expressive that you knew what he was thinking. He could be moody,
demanding, impatient, politically incorrect, intimidating. He'd storm out of the room if he thought a student was giving less than his or her best effort.
But that was only if he liked you. The worst thing with him was to be ignored. It meant he didn't think you were great. And then he didn't have much time for you. Being torn apart by Mr. Rice in the middle of a practice debate meant you were one of his favorites. It happened to me when I was rehearsing a Lincoln-Douglass debate with an older student. I wasn't prepared, and Mr. Rice became infuriated, ripping me so badly that the older student, Karl Timmons, sought me out afterward to console me.
He wasn't always harsh. I'll never forget my senior year, when I qualified for the National Student Congress after performing well at the state tournament. At nationals, my smooth demeanor, my calm delivery, my firm grasp of the issues evaporated, and I stumbled and mumbled nervously through my speech. The only face I could make out in the audience was Mr. Rice's. I could tell I was tanking just by looking at him.
After it was over, he came over to me. "Not my best performance," I said before he had a chance to criticize. He winced and shook his head, "No." Then, to my surprise, he gave me a hug.
Mr. Rice's style didn't make him a great teacher for everybody. Lots of kids dropped his class after the first year. But for me, four years of debate class with Richard Rice was the academic experience of a lifetime.
I learned how to think critically, write persuasively, speak confidently and argue either side of an issue with equal vigor. The skills Mr. Rice taught me expanded my mind. And I have used those skills almost every day in my career.
The last time I saw Mr. Rice was at my 10-year high school reunion. I had just started to work at The Washington Post, and he seemed very proud of what I'd accomplished. He didn't say so, but I'm sure he took some of the credit for my success. That's okay. He deserved it.
Terry M. Neal is a political columnist at washingtonpost.com.