There’s an image of Louis Kokonis enshrined in the memories of a bygone generation of high school students in Alexandria, Va. It’s of the lanky 86-year-old math teacher, much younger, dressed in a suit and covered in chalk dust.
In the early 1970s, well before he was Alexandria’s longest-ever-serving teacher, Kokonis solved algebra and calculus equations on three blackboards in his Francis C. Hammond High School classroom. He worked from the front of the class, then moved to a blackboard fixed on a side wall before filling up the last slate in the back, recalled Chris Barquin, 64.
Chalkboards have gone the way of grade books and slide rules, replaced by computers and calculators, but Kokonis has remained a fixture in Alexandria City Public Schools — first at Hammond, then at T.C. Williams High, which became the city’s lone high school after three other schools combined when the district racially integrated.
Kokonis doesn’t offer rousing pronouncements about the state of public education or preach advice to young educators, as might be expected of a teacher in his 60th year on the job, a milestone that school system officials and former students have celebrated in online tributes.
For his part, Kokonis has found the recent attention stressful.
“I want to forget it, sometimes,” he said one recent weekday inside his classroom.
Flashiness has never been his style. Barquin, a retired civil engineer, recalled that Kokonis’s voice barely rose above a whisper when he taught. Still, he managed to engender respect from students.
“The guy can teach, flat out,” Barquin said. “He’s the finest teacher I’ve had at any level, anywhere.”
Kokonis has taught algebra and geometry but enjoys calculus the most for its rigor. He’s drawn to the certitude of numbers and equations, the way answers to math problems can’t be left open-ended.
“You have something to work for as an answer,” he said. “It’s also a big thrill to get the right answer.”
With the exception of a two-year Army stint in Germany, Kokonis hasn’t strayed far. He moved to Washington when he was 6, graduating from Roosevelt High School in Northwest and D.C. Teachers College before starting in Alexandria in 1959.
Barry Havens, 72, was a middling math student but found Kokonis’s enthusiasm for the subject infectious. The teacher, Havens recalled, never became irritated with students and stayed after hours to provide additional help.
“I’m amazed that he’s still teaching, and on the other hand, it doesn’t surprise me,” Havens said. “It was his life.”
Much has changed in Kokonis’s six-decade career. He’s less likely to teach material if it’s not going to appear on standardized or Advanced Placement tests. These days, he scrawls calculus equations on a Smart board.
But his routine has remained. He still teaches five 90-minute blocks and tutors students at lunch — a full-time class load. He spends three hours preparing before each class, reviewing notes and solving practice problems. Burnout has never been an issue — daily walks around neighborhood parks help, Kokonis said, as does the sense of meaning and purpose he derives from teaching.
Kokonis, who never married or had children, has no plans to retire.
He provided pizza and doughnuts for students at weekend and after-school calculus review sessions in the spring, said Anne Williams, a freshman at Elon University in North Carolina. Williams, a gregarious 18-year-old, would pepper her soft-spoken calculus teacher with questions.
“He’s an introvert that doesn’t share much unless you ask,” Williams explained in a written memory she shared with the school district. “If you are willing to listen and focus, you usually like him”
Among Kokonis’s interests: spaghetti, Irish music and movies with happy endings.
He has a particular affinity for Westerns and “Anne of Green Gables.”
“The world’s tragic enough,” Kokonis said. “I’m kind of idealistic. I like to see everything come out real nice.”
The octogenarian also watched “Remember the Titans,” the 2000 film that immortalized T.C. Williams’s 1971 championship football season. But much of the movie felt unfamiliar.
“When I watched the film, I never remembered any of it,” Kokonis said. “I was up here, doing my work.”