After 37 years at Hickman High School, chemistry teacher Terry Brooks has left a mark — or, more accurately, marks.
He leaves behind smoke- and experiment-stained ceilings and burn spots in the table.
Far more noteworthy, he leaves lessons in chemistry, and beyond, with the thousands of students he has taught over the decades.
Brooks is retiring after 40 years in the classroom, which includes three years teaching in Houston, Missouri, before the move to Columbia. Many teachers retire once their age and years of teaching combine to reach 80. But for Brooks, his retirement comes at 104 “years.”
“I just kept doing it because I was enjoying it,” Brooks said.
At Hickman, he was a steady presence. He worked for eight principals there since he started in August 1985 and was the longest-serving teacher there for the past few years. For 35 years, he said, he was at every varsity football game.
Brooks watched the bell move from daily to block and had schedule to adjust to virtual chemistry demonstrations during the COVID-19 pandemic. When he retired at the end of May, he did so along with two other teachers who were his former students.
Brooks will miss the students and the satisfaction of watching them succeed and learn.
“I really do enjoy getting to work with the students and helping them to do things that they didn’t think they could do,” he said.
In his lab, everything sparks a memory. While glancing out the windows, Brooks recalled watching one of his sons playing football on the grass outside. When he looked down the hall, he remembered a fateful incident in the workroom when he got his hand stuck in a copier.
Brooks said that even if students came through his class hating chemistry, he hoped they could go into any program and succeed because of his class. He pushed them to work hard because he wanted them to succeed.
“I always told them at the first of the year that this course was going to be challenging — but also interesting,” he said.
When Kate Williams, who graduated from Hickman in 2003, thought back on Brooks’ class, she remembered those exact words. He encouraged and challenged, Williams said.
For her, Brooks epitomized what a teacher should be. Williams, who went into a medical field, remembered the experiments he did and what it felt like to sit in his class.
“You can tell he was so devoted to his students and his school and to just being the best teacher he could be,” Williams said.
Brooks recalled having his three children involved in his class throughout the years, early on as young visitors and later as students.
His oldest child, John Brooks, recalled the liquid nitrogen experiments his father did in class. The practical aspects of the demonstrations helped engage him and his classmates, he said. But, his dad also showed students the importance of showing up and being engaged in what they were doing.
“There’s no question he certainly loves teaching and loves being able to make a difference in students’ lives,” John Brooks said.
For both him and Williams, Terry Brooks cultivated an environment that created long-lasting memories. John Brooks recalled the chemistry puns his dad threw into the lessons each day and even mentioned a student who filmed some of those jokes and posted them on TikTok in 2019. The video got almost 3 million views.
Brooks celebrated his final year with a retirement party in early May. Held at Forum Christian Church, the party drew about 150 family members, friends and colleagues. True to his calling, Brooks wrapped up the party with his favorite chemistry demonstrations. Yes, there were flames and puffs of smoke.
Brooks joins 93 other district employees who retired this year, out of 3,000 employees.
He doesn’t have a set plan for what comes next. After four decades of teaching, and the years of his own education before that, Brooks finally won’t be tied to the school bell.
At first, he wants to take some time to decompress. Asked what he really wants to do after that, Brooks answered simply.
“Well, anything I want to.”