A childhood friend of mine just sent me updated information and the news, although not unexpected, still broke my heart. In the past, I had tried to glean some news about this gentleman after I had graduated from high school, then college but to no avail. Of course, I’m talking years ago when access to the information sensory overload system we know as the World Wide Web had not infiltrated every library, classroom, home and cellphone. Heck, this was during the age when if you had a Princess phone, you were “in”. Most of us had to be satisfied with a rotary phone. For those of you still scratching your head…Google it.
Mr. William “Billy Joe” Treat was one of those rare instructors who, when reminiscing over your past academic career, stood out like a beacon from a crowd of blurred teachers standing at the helm of a classroom. They would drone on about a subject you were convinced you would never use while repeatedly checking the clock on the wall only to realize five minutes had passed from previous glancing. Five minute increments were excruciating in those days.
Mr. Treat’s class was different. There was always upbeat energy and it exuded from the man himself. Of medium height and fitness, Joe Treat boasted wavy, black hair and a heartfelt smile for each and every student who entered the class, every single day. He was a teacher of math, of percentages and chances. To him, math wasn’t simply a set of numbers pumped into equations but a creative and imaginative adventure. He was determined, come Hell or high water, his students would feel the same enthusiasm and I think he accomplished his goal.
Everyday, our class would filter in and the mood would become brighter. On the blackboard, (again for those unfamiliar with the concept…Google it) there were the normal mathematical equations all over except for one particular spot. The upper left hand corner was reserved a special number. In that box were the latest stats on the number of milkshakes Mr. Treat owed to the class or were available to win. It fluctuated continually during the school year but as a unit, our class was determined to win the day and wallow in milkshake heaven amid vanilla, chocolate and strawberry bliss.
On one particular day, the betting was hot and heavy. The end of the year was approaching and our class had won little and lost heavily on equations of probability. Perhaps he took pity on our dejected expressions. We will never know for certain but what happened next literally materialized out of thin air. Out of his mouth came the most outrageous throwdown from an adult we had ever heard.
“Okay, class. I’ll give you one chance to redeem yourselves. I’ll bet 1,000 milkshakes I can outrun any one in this class in a race!”
You could have a heard a pin drop as gaping mouths and stunned silence descended. For the next ten seconds, not one sound was uttered. Obviously, the class was mulling over their options. The stakes were high and the clock was indeed ticking away.
To this day, I will never understand how what happened next happened. Of it’s own volition and without my consent or knowledge, an arm slowly arose. It wasn’t until I saw Mr. Treat grinning from ear to ear and coming to stand in front of my desk with chalk in hand, that I understood the depth of that limb betrayal. He was serious!
The bell rang shortly thereafter and apparently in that short amount of time, self designated champions had been decided the race would take place immediately after school and in the playground. By today’s standards, it sounded like a rumble had been arranged.
I am, by nature, a private person. In middle school, I was even more so. As the day wore on, I hoped “the race” would remain within the walls of our math class. Middle school in those days spanned 7th and 8th grade…all in all approximately 300 students per grade. I figured, if I was lucky, perhaps only a few friends outside the math class might get wind of the “event” which would round up to an acceptable number of witnesses…say 35-40. Nothing too crazy. As the day wore on, my hopes began to sink. Every knowing smile and nod increased the body count..
Quite the crowd had arrived after school. If not the entire school at least a large majority of it came to see “the great race”. Mr. Treat appeared in crisp white gym shorts and white t-shirt. He wore one of those black sweat bands around his head. As I entered the foray, he was stretching athletically. I’m happy to report that the crowd was evenly divided…perhaps a few more in his favor, a little intimidating but oddly comforting as well.
We lined up and the PE teacher graciously volunteered to fire the gun. When it went off, surprisingly Mr. Treat shot off the line like a dart. I have to admit all sorts of thoughts went through my mind at the time but despite the fact he pulled ahead in the beginning, I overtook him midway and triumphed in the end. One thousand milkshakes were ours…at least for the next 24 hours.
We lost them in a complicated equation the next day. But perhaps that was the point all along.
Mr. Treat wanted to instill enthusiasm, not just in math but in life. To achieve a goal is amazing, but so is the journey to get there. I don’t remember the equations in his class or who sat on either side of me but I do remember that race, the student body surrounding us on both sides, the cheering, the laughter and the sheer fun of that afternoon. He was as gracious publicly losing that race as he was in winning back all those milkshakes the next day. It is a memory I’ve cherished for many decades.
“Billy Joe” Treat lived life by example. He passed away peacefully in 2001 and wanted no fanfare or ceremony after his death. Somehow, that little nugget didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me is the fact he and his wife had no children. Then again, he had lots of children…students who, year after year, passed through his doors and soaked up his message of enthusiasm for life like a sponge. He lives on in their memories like he does in mine. My only regret is not thanking you in person, Mr. Treat.