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Head + heart

They call him Mr. Gibbs, the perfection-seeking Teacher of the Year.

By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published February 23, 2007


BRANDON

He has been feted and feasted, toasted and praised.

At the awards dinner, they named him Hillsborough County's Teacher of the Year. He stood in the spotlight to thank everyone he could think of, from his 20-year-old daughter to God.

They gave him a plaque, $1,500 and the keys to a brand-new Lexus.

Now, he's trying to be heard in a classroom of 25 Burns Middle School students who are fidgety, hungry and loud.

James Gibbs III, Teacher of the Year, lets his voice get quiet. This usually works.

"Can I have everyone in their seats so I can take attendance, please?"

The room quiets down, but not enough. He sighs.

"Life goes on," he says.

- - -

At noon, students start arriving for his eighth-grade math class. They have spent the morning taking the first half of the FCATs.

"Is that your wedding ring?" a kid asks Mr. Gibbs.

"No, it's my teaching ring," he says. A big, sparkly number, it was part of the award.

While the students are still getting settled, Kevin comes to the classroom to deliver the newspaper.

Kevin is 13 and has autism. He and Mr. Gibbs have been friends for three years. Mr. Gibbs tips Kevin in Tootsie Rolls. Kevin pauses at the doorway.

"I saw you on TV," he says. "Someone told me you were the best teacher."

"What do you think, Kevin?" Mr. Gibbs asks.

"See ya," Kevin says and sidles out of the room.

- - -

Homeroom: Mr. Gibbs intercepts a note and metes out justice.

"A hundred and fifty words on the importance of paying attention to the teacher and not writing little notes," Mr. Gibbs commands. "Vivid words. Proper prepositional phrases. Due tomorrow."

"It wasn't my note," the culprit complains.

"Then write about how you shouldn't get caught with the guy who's doing it."

- - -

He gives them feedback on the morning's FCAT.

He tells them he saw too many people talking before the test started instead of preparing themselves. Too many people daydreaming when they'd finished the test instead of checking their work.

Next time, he tells them, stay busy through the entire testing period. Double-check your answers. Be prepared.

"I've never ever asked anyone in this class to strive for a B," he says. "Strive for perfection."

- - -

He was an Air Force intelligence officer for 24 years. In 2002, he retired and started teaching. He is 48, and he was chosen out of 217 teachers in the district to be this year's honoree.

"I'm nobody special," he said at the awards banquet.

- - -

The bell rings. Lunchtime.

"Okay, girls. You can get up."

They leave en masse.

"Mr. Gibbs, you're killing me, man," one of the boys says.

"Okay. Little boys can go to lunch."

The hungriest among them choose their stomachs over their pride and leave.

"Boys can go to lunch."

Only one gets up.

"Young men can go to lunch."

No one moves. Finally, he relents. "Grown men can go to lunch."

They stampede out the door.

- - -

Mr. Gibbs makes his way to lunch, past signs congratulating him on being Teacher of the Year.

In the staff room at the Brandon school, he loads his tray with beans and barbecue. As he heads past one of the tables, another teacher says, "When are we going to see that Lexus?"

"Oh, it's parked out front," he says.

- - -

"I had no idea it meant this much," he says.

He's sitting in his classroom, temporarily empty of students.

The award meant a lot to him, he said, but it meant just as much to his colleagues.

"They're all so proud. They're so pumped up right now. I feel honored that they feel this way ... Some people have been working here 20 years and they've never seen this happen."

He shakes his head. "It's all overwhelming and kind of surreal right now."

- - -

The students bring their lunches back to the classroom to eat.

"What's in the bag? PB&J?" Mr. Gibbs asks a girl named Paige.

Paige makes a face. "Gross! I hate PB&J! I don't like the jelly and the peanut butter sticks in my throat."

"What? Every kid likes PB&J. Georgia," Mr. Gibbs asks another student, "do you like PB&J?"

"Eww!"

"See?" Paige asks.

"What's wrong with you people?" Mr. Gibbs asks. "You're not human."

- - -

Math class: Mr. Gibbs uses his quiet voice, and the class finally settles down.

But he knows they're still punchy from the morning of testing. If he wants them to do algebra, he'll have to trick them into it.

He announces that they're playing a version of the game show Jeopardy. Each category will showcase a different type of algebra problem.

Fifteen minutes later the room is silent, except for the sound of 25 eighth-graders finding a value for X.

He watches them closely. He can tell when they're struggling. And he can tell when they're learning.

That's what he loves: watching them change, grow, minute to minute.

- - -

The bell rings. Kids explode out of the classroom.

"I truly hope you learned something," he tells them as they rush past him. "Something little. Maybe something small."

As one class pours our of the classroom, the next one pours in.

They take their seats, talking, dancing, sassing each other.

"Okay," says the Teacher of the Year. "We got math to do."

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.