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Teacher happily pays up graduation pledge

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

ALBANY, Ga. -- She was one of his best students and smiled frequently.

But after almost 10 years, former Albany Middle School math teacher and current Monroe Comprehensive High Assistant Principal Benjamin Johnson it took a moment to place Felicia Griffin.

On Monday, Griffin delivered Johnson with an invitation to her Albany State University commencement ceremonies Saturday as Griffin will graduate magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in mathematics. Griffin will graduate with a 3.76 grade point average.

Griffin, 22, was also looking for Johnson to pay up on a bet he made with Griffin and the other seventh-grade math students that Johnson taught at Albany Middle School during the 2000-01 school year.

"During one my motivational speeches one day, I told her and her class to consider majoring in mathematics when they went to college," said Johnson, who graduated from ASU with a mathematics degree in 1991.

"I told them that math majors were in high demand and they will not have a problem finding a job teaching mathematics after they got a degree in mathematics.

"I told them they all had the potential of being math teachers because they were so good in math," he continued. "I was so serious about them going to college and majoring in math, I made the following proposal. I said, 'If you go to college and get a degree in mathematics, I will give you a $100 at graduation.'"

When Griffin asked Johnson to pay up on his pledge with a big smile on her face, Johnson said he was shocked and gave her a big hug.

"I was extremely happy for her because she deserves more than my $100," Johnson said. "One of the great joys of teaching is the fact that your words can touch the lives of so many people for so many years. At first, I didn't recognize her because she was all grown up, but now I remember that excited little smiling face from my seventh grade class years ago coming to get her reward."

Johnson gave Griffin her $100 check Thursday morning and will be in attendance at the Albany State graduation. Making math enjoyable and fun, along with playing highly competitive games, are some of Griffin's favorite memories of Johnson as a teacher.

"He made math interesting and taught me different methods of learning," said Griffin, who will study biostatistics in the fall for her master's degree at Florida State University. "This has helped me to not give up and when you have more hurdles in your life to conquer them."

Beyond his generous graduation gift, Johnson's motivational teaching style has also played a role in how Griffin tutors other college students.

"I try to motivate freshman at Albany State the way Mr. Johnson motivated me, because if you're not enthused, then no one else is," said Griffin, who hopes to one day work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and be a biostatistician.

Griffin said his enthusiastic teaching style came as a result of not wanting to be as uninteresting as some of his math teachers were at Albany High School in the 1980s.

"I made a promise if I became a math teacher I would not make math as dull and boring as some of the teachers who taught it to me," said Johnson, a 1987 Albany High grad.

Johnson said he would be more than happy to pay up again with another $100 check in a couple of years when Griffin earns her master's degree.

"I just want her to go on in college and get her master's and be successful and take whatever I gave her and give it to someone else," Johnson said.

The commencement procession for Griffin and ASU's other spring graduates will begin at 9:45 a.m. with the ceremony at 10 a.m. at the Albany Civic Center. Bachelor's, master's and education specialist degrees will be presented to more than 350 graduates.

The keynote speaker for the occasion will be Esther Brimmer, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs. She was appointed to the position by President Barack Obama in March 2009 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in April 2009.

In addition to serving as the keynote speaker, Dr. Brimmer will also receive the International Citizen of the Year Award from ASU President Everette Freeman.

During Commencement, Freeman will present an honorary doctorate to Lt. Gen. Willie Williams, U.S. Marine Corps chief of staff and former Marine Corps Logistics Command Commanding General. During his time as LOGCOM Commanding General, Williams, an Albany State supporter, played a significant role in the establishment of ASU's bachelor's degree in logistics and supply chain management.