Wizards captivate people. Just ask J.K. Rowling, author of the phenomenal hit series, Harry Potter. But wizards need guidance to reach their full potential, which is why Harry and his friends ended up at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
For many years, McAllen High School served as the Hogwarts School of Math Wizards. And for 32 of those years, teacher Leo Ramirez was their Wizard Maker. The story of Ramirez and his math wizards is chronicled in his newly published book, The Wizard Maker.
Born in Mission in 1951, Ramirez worked alongside his family picking cotton, onions, tomatoes or whatever else the fields yielded each summer. From a young age, Ramirez remembers feeling humbled as he grew to know the other families who traveled with his to work in the fields.
“Most of these parents had very little education,” he writes, “but all were hard workers. Though quite poor, they had a quiet dignity that impressed me. I admire how all of them valued the family unit and sacrificed for it. They prayed that their children would be able to stop the cycle of poverty they themselves had struggled against for so many years.”
Like the other parents in the group, Ramirez’s mother and father understood the key to breaking the cycle was a good education, so they pushed him from a young age. And Ramirez insists he knew early on exactly what he would become.
“I was six years old and in first grade,” he said. “I always finished my work early, so I would get out of my seat and go around helping the other students. At first, the teacher told me I needed to sit down. Later, when she saw how much the other students would listen to me and learn from me, she told me when I finished my work to raise my hand and she would choose the students she wanted me to help. I knew in first grade I would become a teacher.”
Ramirez graduated from Mission High School, where he served as president of the student council, in 1969. The student council sponsor, Mr. Hood, must have had a premonition when he told Ramirez all those years ago that he had the ability to get others to do what he wanted them to do while feeling they were the ones deciding what to do. That power of human psychology served Ramirez well throughout his years as a wizard maker.
Ramirez obtained a Bachelor of Science in math with a minor in government from Pan American University (now the University of Texas-Pan American).
“A couple of years into college, I decided to attend a holiday party,” Ramirez said. “Many of my high school friends were there. They went to UT, Rice and other schools. One of them asked my friend, ‘Where are you going?’ My friend mumbled, ‘Pan Am.’ The guy couldn’t understand him, so he asked him to repeat himself. Again, my friend mumbled, ‘Pan Am.’ I said very loudly, ‘We go to Pan Am.’ Then I told my friend, ‘You need to be proud of who you are. I told him about the movie, Cool Runnings. It is a true story about a Jamaican bobsled team that qualified for the Olympics. Because of the climate there, they didn’t feel too confident. So they watched the Germans and Italians and imitated their behavior. Finally, their coach told them, ‘If you walk like a Jamaican and talk like a Jamaican, you’re a Jamaican. You need to be proud of that.’ I still proudly tell people, ‘I went to Pan American University.’”
Never wavering from the decision he made in first grade to one day become a teacher, Ramirez did his student teaching at Mission Junior High. Mrs. Summers, his supervising teacher, told him after the first six weeks that he would take over all of her classes for the next 12 weeks. He could hardly wait.
“Throughout my years in school,” he said, “I would listen to the content but also watch my teachers carefully. How did they discipline? How did they motivate their students? That’s how I learned to become the teacher I became.”
One of the first things he did seemed to prove what his high school student council sponsor prophesied. He asked students in the two worst classes, “How many of you like the book?” No hands were raised. “How many want to keep using it?’ Again, the air remained devoid of extended hands. He made the students a deal. “You don’t have to bring your book on one condition. You must write your own book. You must show up to school, listen and take notes on everything I teach you.” His students believed they had won a sweet prize, but Ramirez knew they had become like doves in the wizard maker’s hands.
“Honestly,” Ramirez said, “I only used the book two days in 32 years. That was one of my secrets to getting the kids to listen and take notes.”
Once Ramirez became a teacher at McHi, it didn’t take long for him to be recruited to coach the University Interscholastic League math teams. Math Department Chairman Don Skow asked Ramirez to co-sponsor the Number Sense team, and Ramirez jumped at the chance. Skow served as Ramirez’s “maker of the wizard maker,” teaching him all of his math shortcuts and eventually turning the team over to Ramirez, who would thus become only the third number sense coach at McHi since the team formed in 1942.
The Wizard Maker shares the story of Ramirez’s rise to wizard maker status, eventually capturing 20 team state championships. Ramirez delights in telling the stories of students on his team like Pete Garcia who, he said, exemplified the concept of dreaming big. Back in the mid ‘80s, Garcia was an eighth grader at Brown Junior High. The day of the UIL meet at McHi, he showed up a few minutes late. Ramirez told him he would not be allowed to compete because the test had already started. Garcia pleaded with Ramirez to allow him to test.
“There was just something about him,” Ramirez said, “so I told him I could not give him any additional time.” Garcia agreed to the conditions, sat down, took the test and won first place. Ramirez, knowing Garcia would be entering McHi, asked him to join the Wizards. Garcia graciously accepted.
The following year, Ramirez asked Garcia one day what had caused him to arrive late to the contest the year before. Garcia explained that he had told his father about the competition and asked for a ride, but his father refused, telling him school was unimportant and that he needed to go to work. A heated argument ensued, and Garcia’s father left the house. Garcia told his mother what had happened, and his mother gave him permission to go. Garcia walked from a neighborhood south of Brown all the way to McHi. After winning the meet, Garcia walked over six miles back to his home, trophy in hand.
“He dreamed big because he wanted something better for his family,” Ramirez said. “He graduated from Stanford and became CEO of a large computer company. He also mentored all of his siblings along the way.”
Readers learn about many other wizards, like Scott Margo, who graduated from UT-Austin with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and is now working as a patent agent in Taipei, Taiwan, and H.L. Gutierrez who received a PhD from MIT and now works at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation.
Ramirez’s stories about students are sometimes sentimental, sometimes humorous and sometimes unexpected. They are stories meant for students of high school age or above and for adults of all ages.
Ramirez also gives readers a candid look at the difficulties he faced along the way with administrators and his difficult decision to retire. But just as Ramirez knew in first grade that he would become a teacher, even in retirement, he cannot stop. He keeps busy by conducting UIL workshops throughout the state for elementary, middle school and high school teachers and students.
“My workshops are unique,” Ramirez said, “because I ask them to have the students present with the teachers so I can teach the UIL math techniques while modeling how to teach them.”
Ramirez also continues to write tournament tests for all levels of Number Sense, Calculator Applications and Mathematics and has produced four coaching DVDs for parents and teachers. From 1983 to 2005, Ramirez wrote three math workbooks. Since his retirement in 2005, he has written 22. As if this doesn’t keep him busy enough, Ramirez also tutors students, saying this has helped him develop even more teaching and coaching techniques. Ramirez’s magic is scattered throughout the book as he shares his math shortcuts with readers.
The Wizard Maker also includes stories of a son’s love for his parents, a husband’s love for his wife, a father’s love for his children and a grandfather’s love for his baby granddaughter. In fact, on his last day at McHi, Ramirez turned a potentially heartbreaking indignity around by sharing with his colleagues a heartwarming story about his son. The strength of a family’s love is evident in this book.
It is the story of a man who dreamed of casting a spell upon the children who walked into his classroom and who joined his UIL teams, inspiring them to love math. It is those wizards who gave Ramirez his title and a purple McHi jacket with words that honor him…Leo Ramirez…The Wizard Maker.