Mike Edmondson's mother had died, and the Northside High School students in his AP Physics class wanted to express their condolences with their actions as well as their words.
So on a May morning, the students paid tribute to their mourning teacher with shovels and rakes and sweat.
And they left "Dr. E" with rose bushes in his yard and gratitude in his heart.
"It made me feel like I wasn't alone," he said.
He was the lone family member taking care of his mother, Ruth, who went to live in Muscogee Manor four years ago. She died May 9 at 95.
Edmondson choked up as he put his students' generous gesture in perspective.
"Oh, God, these students, to them, I'm not just this teacher standing in front of them," he said. "They had compassion for me. A lot of times, you think teenagers are selfish, but they were selfless."
Susan Sneed, chairwoman of Northside's science department, teaches honors physics and remarked about the rarity of Edmondson's honor.
"This doesn't happen to every teacher," said Sneed, going into her 20th year in education. "This happens to Mike Edmondson because he is incredible to his students. He has a teaching style that, I mean, his students respect him and love him more than any teacher I've ever seen."
Matt Zollinger, one of Edmondson's students this past school year, explained what compelled him and his classmates to reach out to their teacher: his marvelous mix of extraordinary instruction and uncommon concern.
"He always made sure we understood the material, and he always asked us if we were doing OK outside of school," said Matt, who will study aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Dayton Beach, Fla. "It really seemed like he really cared. It wasn't just his job; he wanted to do it."
Another student, Hunter Hall, called Edmondson his favorite teacher.
"He'd put aside class and help one person if they needed it," said Hunter, who plans to attend Columbus State for his core classes, then transfer to Florida State or Florida Tech to major in naval architecture. "He never condescends. He never talks like it's teacher to student but always person to person.
"We all hate when teachers talk down to us, but he has such a way that makes us want to sit down and learn from him."
One of those ways is pushing his students to collaborate and achieve beyond their imaginations.
"He'll tell you, 'You need to finish these 50 impossible questions in two days,' and we'll frantically run around the classroom to work with each other,'" said Savannah Sosa, who will study applied computer science at Columbus State.
Edmondson also connects with his students away from school.
"I remember receiving emails from him on an almost nightly basis," Matt said. "He would send cool things to look at, and if I was having problems at home, I could email him and he would always email back."
Edmondson, 59, graduated from Hardaway High in 1972. He retired from the Muscogee County School District after 34 years in the system, including a stint at Spencer High, where he was the 1990 MCSD Teacher of the Year. And he intends to continue teaching life lessons as well as science when he joins the Brookstone School faculty in August.
"You don't teach the subject," he said. "You teach the student."