CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Calculus? Groan.
Probably the most intimidating of all school subjects, the word sends shivers of dread down the spine of even the smartest students.
George Phillips, senior global technology manager for Dow, wants to change that. The 49-year-old chemical engineer recently taught an after-hours calculus course to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Mountaineer Montessori School.
Lo and behold, they actually liked the stuff! They excelled, he said, because he told them they could. He gave them confidence.
Confidence changed his life. Labeled a slow learner in grade school, he particularly struggled with math. Then, when a test in the sixth grade revealed he had the IQ of a genius, he started acting like one.
He sailed through advanced math and science, fell in love with physics and chemistry and built a stellar academic and professional career rooted in that first uplifting morsel of self-confidence.
Using a can-do mantra to motivate his Montessori students, he simplified calculus concepts and explained how they apply to everyday living.
A kid who can't grasp calculus hasn't met George Phillips.
"I spent my elementary and junior high years in Middletown, Md. My father was a math teacher at the local high school.
"I did very poorly in math in elementary school. I remember sitting in the kitchen with my brother trying to learn long division when I was in the fourth and fifth grade.
"I had a space in the basement where I spent weekends building models, and I had a chemistry set. My dad said he would never keep pens around the house because I would always tear them apart to get the springs out. He used to take me to junk shops and buy me old TV sets and radios so I would tear them apart instead of our good appliances.
"I didn't talk a lot. Mother said everyone thought I was a slow learner. I had behavior problems. When I was 11, I vandalized the school.
"In sixth grade, mom got a call from the school. She expected it to be trouble. They had given me a test and I had scored at genius level. That's when I remember things changing. I started getting put in advanced classes, advanced math, and I started liking school and math.
"When I started algebra, it was like solving a puzzle and it was fun. All through junior high and high school, I did very well in math and science.
"When they said I had a high IQ, I started to think I was smart and I could do this. It's self-fulfilling. If you think you aren't good in math, you won't be good in math.
"We moved to West Virginia in '77 and my parents bought a motel and campground in Pocahontas County. We put in a restaurant the second year. I was always working with my dad, building and maintaining things. I spent one summer basically building the sewage treatment plant. I was 13. That's what got me interested in engineering. I took drafting in high school and that did it.
"My chemistry teacher, Harold Crist, was the one who inspired me the most. I just saw him last weekend. He had a good sense of humor and made the class fun.
"I wanted to be a chemist, but they didn't make a lot of money. Chemical engineering sounded like fun, so that was my pick. It was hands-on building things.
"When I was a sophomore at WVU, I called home and said I'd had enough. I couldn't do it and wanted to quit and come back and run the business. My dad said, 'I never thought you were smart enough to be an engineer anyway.' That turned me around.
"It made me so mad, I got my bachelor's with a 3.5 average and stayed for my master's and got a 3.6. He knew that whatever he said, I was going to rebel against. He insulted me, so I decided I would show him.