Education

In Memoriam: A Heroic Gesture

August 01, 2002 4 min read
Even after his death, teacher turned soldier Marc Anderson found a way to support a favorite student.

This past spring, Marc Anderson, a math teacher from Fort Myers, Florida, was killed in Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan. The strapping 30-year-old had joined the Army four years earlier as a way to pay off his college loans and planned to return to teaching this fall. But, on March 4, his Army Rangers platoon flew into the Shahi-Kot mountains to help rescue a Navy SEAL who’d fallen from a helicopter after Taliban forces shot at it. Bullets pounded the rescuers’ two massive troop helicopters as they attempted to land, and Anderson was one of six men killed in the nine-hour fight to recover the SEAL’s body.

The next day, Anderson’s favorite student, an 18-year-old named Jennifer Massing, learned of his death when a teacher called her out of class and seated her in the guidance counselor’s office. She sobbed into her hands until school officials persuaded her to go home to grieve.

But in death as in life, Anderson had found a way to inspire her. In April, Massing received a check for more than $12,000 from Anderson’s life insurance policy—a bequest intended to minimize her college loans. Although Massing appreciates the gesture, she values Anderson’s guidance more. “It wasn’t the most important thing he did,” she says of the gift. “That’s what I hold dear to my heart—his memory, not the money he left me.”

Anderson’s friends were not surprised by his generosity. “You’re very lucky as a teacher to reach one kid a year, and Marc reached dozens every year,” says Jenny Bacon, a former girlfriend and colleague. “And I guess he’s still reaching people now.”

Many students considered Anderson the coolest teacher at Fort Myers Middle Academy, a global-studies magnet school in a rough neighborhood, where he taught 7th grade math for three years. “Marc was one of those educators who was always excited about teaching, and it’s something that inspired a lot of us to continue being excited about our profession,” says former colleague David Childress. Anderson was a regular at soccer and basketball games because he always wanted to cheer on his students. He tutored kids for free at their homes weekly, and parents ribbed him about his visits, saying he made dinnertime appointments for the purpose of getting free meals.

In the classroom, Anderson employed unconventional tactics to pique his students’ interest. He had kids build bridges of matchsticks and keep track of make-believe stock portfolios to teach them practical uses of math.

The teacher touched many of his students’ lives, but he formed a particularly strong bond with Massing, colleagues say, because he saw a lot of himself in her. Both were feisty athletes, for one. In fact, the two collided during a faculty-student basketball game in 1995 when Massing was in 6th grade. She lunged for a loose ball at the same time as the six-foot-three, 225-pound man, and Anderson accidentally broke her finger. The following year, Massing struggled in Anderson’s class, so the teacher appealed to her competitive nature by making a game of the math problems. After that year, she went on to ace algebra and geometry in high school. Now, she’s hoping to become an architect.

Although Anderson loved his job, he struggled financially. He accrued a hefty debt while studying engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio before he decided to follow his passion for working with children and started over at Florida State University. As a teacher, he earned $26,642 per year and worried it might take two decades to repay the $45,000 he owed in student loans. So, in the spring of 1998, Anderson notified his principal that he would be leaving teaching in the summer to join the Army.

Always the educator, Anderson was determined to share his military experience with students. He solicited their help in losing his potbelly before he left for basic training, so they challenged him to races on the asphalt track after school, recalls student Robert Dorsey, now 16: “He was young, so all the kids related to him. We all wanted to see him make it in the military, like the same way he wanted to see us get ahead.” From training camp, he sent them e-mails describing his jumps from airplanes and the challenges of being one of the oldest guys in his battalion. Over the next four years, he continued to assist several students, including Massing, with their math problems via e-mail as they advanced through school.

Anderson’s zeal for education was apparent to his buddies in the Army. One, Russell Zayas, says Anderson talked him into taking college classes so he could become an officer. “It was amazing to see how excited he’d get to help out,” recalls Zayas, who enlisted right after high school. Now Zayas is studying criminology at the University of Tampa.

In December 2001, Anderson returned to Fort Myers for one last visit before shipping out to Afghanistan and took Massing and Bacon to a Mexican restaurant. Leaving the restaurant, the soldier, who was single and had no dependent, told Massing that he had left her money in his life insurance policy. “It was upsetting to her,” says Massing’s mother, Judy. “They never talked about it again, and in February he called her from over there [in Afghanistan] just to tell her he was taking good care of himself.”

As Anderson had wished, Massing will not take on college debt when she heads to the University of Florida in Gainesville this fall. After learning of her teacher’s gesture, the Newington, Virginia-based Bailey Family Foundation, which helps students attend college, announced it would pay any cost not covered by Anderson’s gift. But Massing doesn’t like to talk much about the money simply because she’d rather it had never come to her.

—Eric Alan Barton

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