Richard Murphy was a car salesman out on the lot when he took a break from selling Fords and picked up a magazine.
Thumbing through it he came to a story highlighting the fact that just two percent of teachers in the U.S. are Black men.
That random magazine article would prove a pivot point in his life.
He had coached kids in basketball but had never considered teaching before. Now he couldn’t get the idea out of his head.
“It spoke to me,” he recalled from his math classroom at Trask Middle School. “Thinking about a lot of young kids who don’t get to see a positive Black male role model in front of them every day, I could try to fill that void.”
He thought about the men who had stepped in to usher him to adulthood: The coaches who taught him to stand tall and be someone people could count on, on the court and off; the middle school principal who was his Big Brother when his own dad wasn’t around.
He and his wife had a newborn baby, and he had every reason not to start a new career. But there just wasn’t any going back.
Enrolling at Cape Fear Community College and then UNCW, he picked up a job at FedEx to make ends meet while getting his education degree. “I would get up at 3 a.m. to go to work, get off at 8 a.m., go straight to class, repeat,” he said.
The motivation to keep going, he said simply, was “to give back.”
Now in his fifth year in the classroom, he coaches the Trask basketball team and teaches compounded math to seventh graders — measuring angles and circles, learning probability and sampling, coming to understand proportional relationships.
“Them learning the math, that’s a plus,” he said. “But the relationships and the character I can help them build is the biggest thing. I want to make them solid young individuals.”
For him, coaching is teaching, and teaching is coaching.
Among the mathematical expressions and equations are hidden what he calls “jewels” for kids at a tender, tumultuous age who may not have many adults like him in their lives — how to carry yourself, how to talk to people with respect, how to brush off the way social media tells you to look and act and “genuinely be yourself. That is perfectly enough for you.”
When they’re at a place where they believe they can do hard things, he said, then the learning comes naturally.
And seeing students working through frustration to write equivalent expressions for Mr. Murphy, or clustering around him after class to soak in bits of guidance and encouragement, it’s clear he has become the teacher he thought he could be on that car lot years ago.
“Some of them, through no fault of their own, have a lot to overcome to get to where they want to be,” he said. “I let them know that they are powerful, they can accomplish anything, and if you’re willing to sacrifice and put the work in, then the world is yours.”