A Tribute to Ryan Holderman, One of the Best Teachers I’ve Had

I was a pretty typical, cocky high-school freshman some mumblety years ago: I was sure I had the system figured out, and thought I was ready for anything. Being fascinated by science, I signed up for Biology I. I had no idea what was about to happen to me …

My teacher, Mr. Holderman, was an imposing man with a ready, infectious laugh, but he could turn deadly serious in a nanosecond, so one was always on one’s toes around him. In addition to regular quizzes, pop quizzes, assignments, and exams, a hefty portion of the grade in his courses came from projects. He assigned the work for each project with clear instructions, but didn’t tell us one crucial detail when assigning the first project for each course: doing just the required work would earn a student a C.

Not knowing this, I completed my project brimming with confidence: I had an A in the class so far, the work was straightforward, and I thoroughly enjoyed the course, so what could possibly go wrong? As Mr. Holderman returned the project binders—face down so that no one could see the grade on the front page—I watched as several of my classmates turned their binders over, blushed, and frowned. Confident in my work, I smugly assured myself that I wouldn’t follow suit… until I turned my binder over and saw a C under my name.

My cheeks now flushed as crimson as many of my friends’, I listened as Mr. Holderman told us that most of us had completed the assigned work satisfactorily… and that was C-level work. To earn—and he emphasized the word earn—a B or an A, our work needed to be “good” or “excellent” respectively. We needed to go above and beyond what he had set out as the project’s requirements.

That first project was the only one on which I earned a C. In considering ideas for extra work for subsequent projects, I found I enjoyed exploring more deeply the specific topics that interested me, as well as trying to find creative ways to present the material to him. Both of these activities deepened and broadened my understanding of the course material, and solidified my love of learning for the sake of learning. I went on to take two more courses with Mr. Holderman, and of course I didn’t forget that painful lesson: I never earned below an A on any project in his classes after that first one.

Mr. Holderman was always happy to provide learning opportunities wherever they arose. I recall that a classmate misspelled their name on a pop quiz—he noticed and deducted a point. While returning the quizzes, he told us about it and his action. He probably explained why, but I don’t remember his words: it was clear from everything he did in the class that attending to the details is always important.

I do remember a frequent saying of his whenever he spotted overly amorous students: “No osculating in the halls!” I looked it up as soon as I got home. Mr. Holderman didn’t start my love affair with synonyms, but he certainly strengthened it.

I cannot honestly say that I’ve consistently applied Mr. Holderman’s advice throughout my life; but I can say that every time I have gone above and beyond what’s been expected of me—whether in an academic endeavor or in any of the many jobs I’ve held—I’ve been rewarded for it. In school, I’ve learned more than I would have otherwise and discovered a lot of interesting topics I probably wouldn’t have explored. In work, I realized that all jobs can be thought of as providing some kind of service to someone; and I’ve attempted to consistently deliver the highest level of service I possibly can. This attitude has even helped me be a better parent.

Who would have thought so much could hinge on one relatively insignificant C? I wouldn’t have dreamed of such a thing… but Mr. Holderman knew. It’s a lesson that has permeated my being, and was strongly reinforced later in my life by my training in karate, especially in the Traditional Karate of Bellingham dojo. But that’s a topic for another day.


I originally wrote a version of this essay as part of a scholarship application while in massage therapy training. I recently found it in my archives, and since Mr. Holderman died a few years ago, I wanted to share it in tribute to him.