More than just a teacher
Chemistry teacher Garrett Lim is the type of guy who never basks in the glory. He ducks and shuns praise as if it were a pestering fly. He doesn’t accept that praise for him exists, even if he were to trip, face-plant and break his nose against it. Seriously. Just look at this:
“When you were at the All-Star teacher reception, sitting there listening to Cal Ripken Jr. talk, what was going through your mind?”
“It was really cool the whole time I was there. But I kept thinking ‘This is something you throw for really important people’ and they’re treating us [teachers] like we’re really important people. But I didn’t think I was important enough for this. I kept looking around, and wondering if there was some kind of celebrity he was talking to.”
Oh, Mr. Lim. If only he knew.
“I was so scared when I first went into his [AP Chemistry] class. I mean, he’s the best,” junior Patrick Utz said.
“Mr. Lim always stayed humble. He’s still extremely friendly and kind to all his students and past students,” senior Chelsea Rivera said.
“He makes a lot of sacrifices for the sake of his students, such as opening the door during lunch for questions or staying after school or reaching out to students,” Daniel Tsai (alumna ‘14) said. “What’s most incredible to me was that he felt those sacrifices were just what he had to do. It was the right thing to do for him, and it’s not something we see [often] with other teachers.”
So it comes as no surprise to many that such a teacher would be chosen as an MLB All-Star Teacher. Former student Tsai, also a dedicated baseball fan, nominated Garrett with the help of another former student, Jin Zhang (alumnae ‘14). Tsai bonded with Mr. Lim over their common love of baseball, frequently discussing the latest news and updates during tutorial and lunch.
“At first, I didn’t expect much of the nomination, and when I didn’t get any news I even joked with Daniel, ‘I guess my story wasn’t cool enough,’” Mr. Lim said. “But then they started emailing me a bunch of questions for background checks and information and I finally got the email notifying me that I had been chosen as one of the 90 [candidates].”
Mr. Lim was chosen as one of three finalists to potentially represent the Chicago White Sox, his favorite team. To become the final representative who would appear at the 2014 MLB All-Star Game, teachers had to win in a voting process. Students and friends shared links on social media of Mr. Lim’s nomination and ultimately, he was selected as one of 30 teachers chosen from 7000 nominations nationally.
“He has the type of personality that makes you forget that he’s our teacher, and because of the way we look at him, we see Mr. Lim as our friend trying to help us get through a difficult class, not an enemy we’re trying to beat. So I think when people were voting for Mr. Lim, it was really about voting for a friend who helps us, which really helped,” Tsai said.
Principal Jeff Jordan and math and sciences dean Barbie Cole were just a few of the many who congratulated him on his victory.
“I said that he put Walnut on the map,” his wife Nancy said.
Mr. Lim looked up when she said that.
“No, no, no.”
On Sunday July 13, Mr. Lim and Nancy were chauffeured to the LAX Airport where they were flown with the teacher representative for the Angels to Minneapolis, the 2014 host site of the MLB All-Star Game. There, they arrived and checked in at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where the MLB All-Star players were also staying.
“We really had no idea what to expect. When we got there, we saw a bunch of huge signs saying ‘People Magazine All-Star Teachers’ and I was being really silly at first, telling Mr. Lim to take a picture of the signs and players around us and then constantly posting it on my Facebook,” Nancy said.
They were welcomed with a gift box packaged with items including a People Magazine’s All-Star Teacher patch, a piece of artificial turf, tickets to seats in the Target suite box at Target Field and even a jersey with “Lim” stitched on the back of it. Afterward, they were invited to Target’s headquarters for a reception, where company executives and legendary Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. praised the teachers and their positive influences.
“That first night it was just like… ‘Is this real?’” Mr. Lim said. “That first night I honestly couldn’t sleep.”
Although not originally from the Chicago area, Mr. Lim represented the Chicago White Sox. As a kid, Mr. Lim was so drawn to White Sox legend Frank Thomas and his approach to the game that he quickly became a fan. Since then, he frequently attends games when the White Sox come to Los Angeles to play the Angels or the Dodgers.
His love for such a distant team created some confusion when he met Dr. Jill Biden’s chief of staff, Sheila Nix, in Minneapolis.
“She sat right next to me on the trolley and said ‘Oh, I’m from Chicago too!’” Mr. Lim said. “And I was like ‘Oh…awkward… I’m not from Chicago.’”
Over the course of the next two days, Mr. Lim and his wife attended the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game. At the All-Star Game, he stood on field with the players as Tony Award winner and Broadway and Frozen singer Idina Menzel sang the national anthem.
“I was seriously holding back tears. That was an amazing experience, being on the field with Idina Menzel behind me singing,” Mr. Lim said. “It was just breathtaking to see the jets flying overhead and feeling the ground shaking beneath me.”
Additionally, he attended a charity event and was able to get to know the other 29 teachers. Through frequent conversations with librarians, kindergarten teachers and retired teachers, among others, Mr. Lim says he was inspired by others’ experiences.
One teacher led his students to raise six figures for cancer patients. Others crocheted quilts for children’s cancer patients or helped buy furniture for students who couldn’t afford it. The teachers still stay in touch in a Facebook group, sharing and congratulating each other on their school board recognitions, ceremonial first pitches and awards.
“As teachers, we never stop thinking about our students and how ourselves can become better and how we can make it better for our students. It was really cool to see that in action with all these teachers from all grade levels and all subjects,” Mr. Lim said.
They say that behind every successful man, there is a strong, wise, and hardworking woman.
Meet Nancy Lim, who is all that, and probably more. She met Mr. Lim while the two were in college as freshmen during their orientation week at UCLA and recently celebrated their 10th anniversary.
“I remember seeing pictures of him in some of my brother’s photos from a church event,” Nancy said. “We were in an elevator together, and I was like ‘Hey you look really familiar.’”
“Then she said ‘I’m [Neville’s] sister,’ and I was like, ‘Oh I didn’t even know he had a sister,’” Mr. Lim said.
Besides being a mother of two, Nancy has a regular day job at an import and export company, but that doesn’t stop her from being a fitness teacher, concert pianist and baker of “this is built for Godzilla”-sized cakes.
I asked her how she first got started into baking party-sized cakes.
“Well I kinda got started becau-”
“Because you’re crazy?” Mr. Lim asked.
Despite the playful nature behind their interactions, Nancy has been the emotional rock behind Mr. Lim, stretching from their early days all the way until now.
Coming out of college with a degree in biochemistry, Mr. Lim was hired in the chemical industry. Gradually he began getting better and better job offers, and ultimately became a research and development manager at Parco, an Ontario based company specializing in rubber products. Although placed in a stable position and emerging as one of the faces of the organization, Mr. Lim says he began to wonder if his job aligned with his passions.
“I was at the highest I could probably go in my company, I was valued and respected, but I began to think, ‘Do I really enjoy this?’” Mr. Lim said. “And the answer was no. There were parts of it I enjoyed, but I didn’t enjoy it thoroughly, and [Nancy] would see it on my face coming home from work.”
After deliberating for almost a year about his future, Mr. Lim decided that he wanted to pursue teaching and finally took action. He resigned from his position at Parco and applied to become a chemistry teacher. He taught a year of Chemistry Concepts at South Hills High School before coming back to his alma mater Walnut High School to teach honors and AP level chemistry.
“It was a long decision. I was leaving security and my company did value me. Even after I decided to do it, it took a half a year to really get the process started and take the exams I needed to take to become a teacher and restudying my general chemistry, while life was still going at home,” Mr. Lim said. “I felt it was the right path for me, and reflecting upon it now, I feel like it was the right decision. [Nancy] helped a lot and was very supportive.”
The initial financial burden and uncertainty hit the Lims hard, both economically and emotionally.
“We saved. A lot. A lot of things in the moment, they seem very scary, but looking back, it wasn’t too bad,” Nancy said. “In the moment, you feel like everything’s really hard, but there’s always an end to everything and life will go on. And as you reflect back, you go ‘Wow, we didn’t really struggle that much.’ I told Garrett that I think if this is what you’re called to do, then life will find a way.”
Fast-forward nine years to now, and it seems like Mr. Lim’s investment has paid off. He’s a six year consecutive faculty honor guard member, taught multiple Chemistry Olympiad and Science Olympiad winners and has an AP Chemistry pass rate of 95 percent over the last eight years, compared to an average of 55 to 60 percent across the nation.
But the success hasn’t gotten to him. When asked what he thought about his students calling him “the best,” he laughed.
“That’s awkward man.”
By Ted Zhu, Editor-in-chief