It was in Virginia that Max White decided he'd become a teacher.
A lot of things happened before that decision — and a lot of things have happened since. And while the Albany resident has a logical, measured description of most of those things, one eludes him: a succinct few sentences as to what makes teaching so magical that it’s lured him away from more lucrative professions and keeps him going back to the classroom after the age of 65.
“I just, I don’t know. I just enjoy it so much,” he said Tuesday morning, settled in a chair at an Albany coffee shop, his glasses reflecting the lights as his eyes darted through his past to make a connection to the present, where he’s been named the Oregon Substitute Teacher of the Year by the Oregon Substitute Teachers Association.
His story starts in New England, where his father was the head of the journalism department at Boston College. White did well in school and headed to college at Princeton, where he studied economics with eyes toward law school, but his eyes were bigger than his stomach.
“It just wasn’t for me,” he said. He had tutored students at college in Princeton and the decision to become a math teacher just happened.
“It was sort of a revelation,” White said.
He continued his education at the University of Virginia, taking with him a conversation from the track coach at Princeton University, who convinced him to go out for the team. By his senior year at Princeton, he had qualified for the Olympic trials in the marathon, and after he settled at the University of Virginia, he traveled to Hayward Field at the University of Oregon three times for the trials in 1972, 1976, and for the last time in 1980, where the college town of Eugene gave him another sort of revelation.
“I stayed,” he said. “I decided to move to Oregon, it was just beautiful.”
By the time White made it into an Oregon classroom, he had traveled to London to run a 53-mile race, run the New York City Marathon, taken part in the Olympic trials and joined the Army National Guard. They were experiences that helped him connect with students at the University of Oregon, where he taught introductory economics classes while he completed his graduate work, and in 1987, he set foot into South Albany High School.
“At that point, I really needed good, steady employment,” he said.
He started in the math department, but he took on a biology course as well, jumping through state certification hoops to do so.
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“I went through all of that and passed the tests and then the next year I was teaching all math,” he said.
White taught full-time at South Albany for 11 years, all the while advancing in his military career despite a paperwork mishap that would keep him as an enlisted man. A move to West Albany High School saw him teach full time for another 11 years until 2010 — the year he deployed for the first time, at the age of 60, to the Middle East and retired from full-time teaching.
“The reason I became a substitute teacher after being a full time teacher is a military reason,” he said. “They made me command chief and I realized that was an ambitious position and being a full-time teacher and having this position, I couldn’t give both my full effort.”
So White returned to the halls of West Albany, where he has covered for every math and science teacher at the school, many of whom he taught three decades ago in his own classroom. He’s tutored students for free, suggesting only that they take part in the Special Olympics Polar Plunge that he, himself, participates in, too.
He’s learned languages so that he can exchange pleasantries with fellow teachers originally from overseas and students whose names indicate that English may not have always been their family’s first language. He’s ordered (and worn) Van shoes and Gucci belts after suggestions from students in a move he says shows the respect he has for them. He keeps score at every home football game, helps out with the track team and keeps the score book for the basketball team. He’s marched with teachers at graduation, taken part in school assemblies and is the go-to fill-in for teachers on medical and maternity leave. They trust him not to just babysit their classes, but to teach them as well.
“I never want a teacher to have to reteach the lesson they left me,” he said. “I go get the lesson before I teach it, I do the assignment and I look at the answer keys and politely correct any mistakes,” he said.
It’s that kind of all-around effort and dedication to students and teachers alike that moved West Albany Principal Susie Orsborn to write in to the Oregon Substitute Teacher Association.
“Max does whatever it takes to help our staff and our students. He is truly amazing,” she wrote. “He truly is a remarkable member of our school family.”
The association took note and on Oct. 26, it will award White with the Oregon Substitute Teacher of the Year award.
And what did White — who still runs dozens and dozens of miles a week, practices six languages every morning, and shows up for work with the full expectation he’ll make a difference that day — think of the very unexpected news in the middle of one of his very predictable days?
“I was humbled,” he said. “I was so honored that Mrs. Orsborn would nominate me. Substitute-teaching is like an amazing hobby for me. I would do it without earning any money. It’s really very humbling.”