He got the idea from a radio show. Seven years ago, math teacher Rick Royer was listening to talk radio when an older man started talking about how he realized that his time left on Earth was limited and, afraid he would take the remaining time for granted, had filled a jar with marbles and was using the marbles to count down the weeks he had left in his life.
The idea clicked with Royer. He brought two used coffee pots into room 408 and filled one to the brim with marbles, each representing a week remaining in his career. Every Friday since then, he’s had one of his students take a marble from one pot and move it to the other.
“It was just another way to make me appreciate the finiteness of my time here — make me not take it for granted quite so much,” Royer said.
When he began seven years ago, he had 400 marbles left to move. 400 weeks remaining. But last year, when changes in funding and curriculum in the district made him think it was time to go, Royer readjusted, and took out about three years’ worth of marbles.
As a result, three marbles now sit at the bottom of his jar. Just three weeks remain.
And when that last marble drops into the second pot on May 23, Royer’s 40-year career teaching math at East will be over.
Now, with each successive marble, Royer wells up just a bit as the reality of his impending retirement dawns on him. He’s taught more than 6,000 students, in a career that spans 5 wars, 5 principals and 10 presidents. Walking away won’t be easy.
He’s not just leaving a job that he loves. His greatest friends were made in these halls, and in his classroom. And when he says that, he’s not just referring to the faculty members who have stayed friends with him even after they’ve retired: he’s talking about the students. The ones whose pictures shuffle through on a screensaver at his desk computer. His wife Stephanie says he’s normally somewhat antisocial. But when he’s with his kids, you would never know.
“I tell my students often that if I listed my ten best friends at any point in my life, eight of them would probably be current students,” Royer said.
Forming personal connections with students is an essential element of Royer’s teaching style. He does it through his uniquely sarcastic sense of humor. He does it by teaching life lessons in addition to math. He does it by being completely honest with his students. Regardless of how he does it, students like junior Garrett Raibble appreciate his personal approach to teaching.
“He just really cares about East students so much [individually],” Raibble said. “He knows how to have fun, and just the way he jokes around, you can look at him as a friend and not just as a teacher.”
For senior Tyler Germann, Royer’s efforts to befriend his students has helped him do better in Royer’s Calculus BC class.
“[His personal approach] makes a difference because not only do you feel like you would disappoint him as a student but you’d disappoint him as a friend if you don’t do well,” Germann said.
Royer’s ability to connect to his students largely stems from his honesty. At any point in time in class, he could be telling one of his famous stories that aren’t supposed to leave the classroom, or playing the adjective game, where he says the first word that comes to mind to describe students in his class. He could even just be poking fun of students as he often does. But no matter what he’s doing, Royer is always honest with his students. He holds nothing back from them, and they appreciate him for it.
Royer has always tried to connect to his students because for him, education is so much more than the quadratic formula, or differentiating the cosine function. Teaching, as Royer sees it, is about helping kids grow up and realize what’s important in life.
“I’ve often thought that if at the end of my career I can look back and if there are 6,000 more students out there that know the quadratic formula [and that is the] significance of my footprint on this planet at the end of my career, then what a wasted life I’ve had,” Royer said.
Royer’s emphasis on teaching life lessons in addition to equations is one of the ways he connects with his students so well. His lessons have helped students like junior Gracie Tapp relate to him for decades. Tapp, like many students Royer has had in the last decade of his career, is a legacy. Her father, Doug Tapp, had Royer as both a teacher and a basketball coach (Royer was an assistant coach for 20 years) when he was in high school. He describes Royer as a man of “integral character, loyalty, and courage,” and according to Gracie, urged his daughter to take higher math classes so she could have a chance to have him as a teacher. But when she saw his name on her junior schedule, he was surprised.
“I thought, ‘How can this guy still be teaching at East?’” Doug said. “But then I remembered how impactful Mr. Royer was in my life and thought Gracie was in for a treat that she might not realize until long after her year with Mr. Royer.”
Like her father and thousands of other students, Gracie has been impacted by Royer. Royer has made an impact even among the faculty at East. Math teacher Hannah Pence, who had Royer for Algebra II in 1989, credits his passion for teaching as one of the biggest reasons she became a teacher.
“I had never seen somebody who was more passionate about what he did and had more fun doing what he was doing,” Pence said.
It’s 6 p.m. on a Monday, and a couple dozen high school students sit in a circle in Royer’s backyard. It’s Royer’s annual pre-AP test dinner, and as the 61-year-old-man watches his friends play a tensely contested game of “Catchphrase”, you can see it in his eyes. He’s starting to miss them already. Every year at graduation, Royer says that he feels like he loses a hundred dear friends. Losing double that this year will weigh heavily on him.
He’s not sure what he’ll do without his students, without his work, to occupy his time next year. He’s not the type who likes to sit around and read a book or watch TV. He needs to be active. He needs to be with his students, with his friends. Stephanie, the woman who’s been with him since sixth grade, the one who he tells his students about all the time, worries about him.
“I don’t know how he’s gonna fill his time,” she says, as she watches Royer talk to his students in their backyard. “In the summertime, he takes care of the yard, he goes on runs, he does stuff around the house — but when it comes time to go back to school, he’s ready. He can hardly wait to get back to school.”
But of course, next year, Royer can’t get back to school. He knows he can’t just sit around, but he doesn’t know what he’ll do yet. He suspects he’ll do some type of community service, but there aren’t many opportunities for service near his house in Olathe.
“He’s gonna drive us both crazy,” Stephanie said.
It won’t be long now. The marbles are almost gone. The last day is approaching, and Royer still doesn’t know what to expect. It may just be like any other year, packing up and going home for the summer. Or he may break down in tears. He doesn’t know yet. But whether he cries or not on that last day, this school has certainly meant a lot to him.
“I feel the greatest gift that one human being can give to another is to make them feel respected, appreciated and loved,” Royer said. “[That is] a gift that the community of Shawnee Mission East has given to me. I will be forever grateful for that.”