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Soldier Bequeaths Hope to Star Student

Friendship: Teacher turned Army Ranger wanted her to be all she could be. When he died in Afghanistan, he left her some of his life insurance.

April 28, 2002|ALLEN G. BREED | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FORT MYERS, Fla. — March 4 was to be one of the best days of Jennifer Massing's life.

She made All-Conference in soccer, her high school teammates voted her most valuable player, and she won a trophy for having the highest GPA on the squad, a figure boosted by honors classes to 4.93.

Jennifer, 18, couldn't wait to e-mail the news to Marc Anderson. He was more than just her former math teacher--he was her coach, her mentor, her biggest fan, her friend.

"I remember thinking, 'Oh, Marc's going to be so proud of me because I won these--because I'm able to excel in soccer and in school,' " she said.

She never got the chance.

While Jennifer was reveling in her achievements, 30-year-old Spc. Anderson was lying dead halfway across the world on an Afghan mountain. The teacher-turned-Army Ranger, who had left the safety of the classroom to pay off his college loans, was killed trying to rescue a Navy SEAL who had fallen out of a helicopter under fire.

The son of a Ranger who served four tours in Vietnam, Anderson was committed to the creed that no man be left behind.

As awful as the news was, Jennifer could handle it. But she also had to deal with the disquieting fact that his death brought her some good fortune. Anderson's military life insurance policy would help put her through college.

"I definitely did not want the money," Jennifer said, sniffing back tears. "I wanted him instead."

The way friends saw it, Marc Anderson brought to teaching a kind of civilian version of the Ranger code: Leave no student behind.

Anderson signed on at Fort Myers Middle School in 1995. From the beginning, it was clear he was going to do more than just sit behind his desk from bell to bell.

Anderson was in his classroom long before school started and a couple of hours after it ended to tutor kids who needed help, whether they were his students or not. He always brought juice, bagels or doughnuts for his sunrise scholars.

He was a common sight at weekend baseball and soccer games, and would often go to children's homes to tutor them. Parents jokingly accused the bachelor teacher of being in it for the free meals, but the kids knew better.

"The middle school years are rough," says Meredith Hoek, 18, who met Anderson in a SAT review course. "You could go to him and he related well, sometimes better than your parents, because he was younger.

"He just really became kind of a peer and a mentor to all of us. Jen especially."

Anderson and Jennifer met in 1995 under less-than-auspicious circumstances, during a faculty/student basketball game. He broke her finger fighting her for a loose ball.

Colleague David Childress says Anderson saw a lot of himself in the feisty sixth-grader. "Had Jennifer been a boy, she would have been Marc reincarnate," he says.

For starters, they were always looking out for others.

When he was a student in high school, Anderson would adopt a freshman every year and protect him from bullies. Jennifer's Fort Myers High School soccer teammates jokingly call her "Coach Mass."

Childress says Anderson admired her aggressiveness on the field. He had been an All-American offensive guard in football at Case Western Reserve and won Florida State University's 1995 Golden Torch award for being the student-athlete with the highest GPA.

Anderson went to one of Jennifer's soccer games and noticed she was running on her heels, not her toes. For weeks afterward, he met her after school and watched her sprint until she improved her speed.

"He was kind of forcing me to do it, in a way, to help me improve. But at the same time he was like asking my permission to do it," she says. "In school, it was teacher to student. After school, it was just a friend helping out a friend."

When Jennifer moved to seventh grade, Anderson was her math teacher. Math wasn't her best subject, but he always pushed her to improve--and liked the way she met the challenge.

One day, Anderson asked Jennifer what she'd like to do with her life. She said that she'd like to be an architect, but that as a woman, it probably wasn't practical.

Her lack of confidence hit him like a hammer in the chest.

"His face just went sullen--it just went dull," she says. "He didn't yell at me. He just made it firm that I can achieve whatever I want to do. . . . I idolized him for doing that for me and making me become aware of that."

As Jennifer moved on to high school, and he to the Army, the two stayed close. Somewhere along the line, Anderson decided he was going to make sure Jennifer lived up to her potential.

Anderson's family convinced him to go to college instead of the military. His oldest brother, John, was making the Marines a career, and middle brother Stephen had done eight years in the Army and reserves, so they figured the baby shouldn't have to go.

But after five years of college, Anderson was nearly $45,000 in debt. He decided the quickest way to pay it off was to join the military.

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