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Standing on the shoulders of giants

November 15, 2016

Last week, my sweetie and I traveled back in time to the college town where we met.  It was just the two of us travelling the almost three hundred miles (one-way) to the North Dakota prairie and home again that day.  We visited the old Mayville State campus, went to the place of our first date, and visited with some dear, dear friends, including the matron of honor from our wedding.

The first thing that struck me was how we were transformed just pulling into town.  It was if we were lighter, remembering who we were before the hardships of life had crossed our paths.  The next thing I noticed was that while much progress has been made, there are some things that hadn’t changed a bit such as the sandwich we ordered on our first date twenty-five years ago is still on the menu.

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But the thing that made the biggest impact on our visit was just how long love and influence last.

I wish, oh how I dearly wish, the reason for the two of us to take off in the middle of the week was because we need to go back and the tickle the roots of our relationship. Yet, sadly that would not be the truth.  Even though reconnecting with one of my college best friends, picking up where we had last left off, was a beautiful moment, the gathering was due to the passing of her dad, who happened to be our physics professor.  Mr. W was also my science education professor.  Considering how I currently hold the same position at a university across the border, to say he was influential in my life would be an understatement.

The gathering was bittersweet.  The reminiscing was incredible as we laughed about so many stories from our days as science majors and all the studying we did to accomplish top marks.  (Or at least the best marks we could.) More on that in a bit.  Yet the ironic sadness of the last two times we have been together were because we lost someone dear (my son and her dad) was not lost on me.

Yet rather than lay low in the valley, I want to remember and in the remembering honor the man who really shaped my future as a science teacher.  Attending a tiny university was one of the best decisions I ever made, and one that I have never regretted.  One of the benefits (of which there were many) was the small class sizes and the opportunity to develop relationships with the professors.

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Mr W was a dandy!  He had a great sense of humor and a penchant for the dramatic at times.  He held incredibly high standards and he never expected we were capable of anything but meeting them.  He also had an understanding of the forward march of education and the jobs we future science teachers would be facing.

Let’s face it. Physics is tough stuff. Mr W always knew that we would encounter a few challenges, and he would answer our questions with a humorous, “Well, what in the cat hair?” Then, he would roll up his sleeves and model his thinking so that we could all understand how to dissect a problem like a physicist. But more importantly, his methods never diminished the struggle and he always made us feel like he was a co-partner in learning.

As for his standards, his was the first class in which I earned a B in college.  But standing firm in his high standards meant that he believed I was capable of so much more than I dreamed and he held me and my classmates accountable to what he saw in each of us.  Of course, I have jokingly shared the story of the physics final where I needed a 42 out of a 40 to earn an A in the course.  His exam was my first real act of rebellion in all my schooling (unless you count the time a handful of classmates and I sang “Let my people go” in the lunchroom when our high school didn’t close with an impending hurricane).  The physics tests were always full of choices (pick a certain number of 2 point multiple choice problems and a certain number of 10 point constructed response problems from a wide sample).  I needed only a 2 out of a 40 for a B.  I walked in answered two multiple choice questions, got up, handed in my test paper, and walked out.  The look on Mr. W’s face was priceless.  It wasn’t that I was defeated, but rather an acknowledgement of the other two tests I had that week – Calculus IV and Organic Chemistry.  If Mr W was a betting man, he would have chuckled at my gamble.

But probably the biggest impact was all the ways he influenced my future teaching practice. From the way he made every learner feel as they were the most important person in the room to his always infectious smile and “Hi-ya” greeting, his relationship building methods were lasting.  His ability to look at a classroom full of eager learners and polish us until we shined by always providing challenging and rigorous material while simultaneously providing support was legendary.  He had a character that appeared in his problems, Johnny Kilowatt and ask any of my former junior or senior high science students, Johnny Cheapskate taught us all a lot about chemistry and physics.  I may even squeeze a “What in the cat hair?” every now and again too.

See – that it is the impact of a genuinely amazing teacher.  It would be hard for me to separate my practice from the incredible teachers who invested their very best time and energy in me.  As the wife of another one of my favorite professors offered at Mr. W’s service, we who loved him as our teacher “stand on the shoulders of giants”.

I am so deeply saddened by his passing, but I am thankful for a small gesture that I began practicing shortly after graduating.  I went back to the college and personally thanked each one of the giants upon whose shoulders I stand.  My gratitude was met with hugs, tears, and yes, one ubiquitous “Hi-ya”, but seeing the heartfelt response to my admiration is something I will never forget.

Even in his passing, I took one last time to say thanks.  I could think of no better goodbye than to say that he personally made a huge difference in my life.

We all have the opportunity to offer a small act of great love.   This week is National Education Week.  Think back to the teachers who helped shape you or who truly made a difference in your life.  Take the time to send a short message of thankfulness.  If you have children in school, ask them to do the same.

Even though I earned a B in his course, his lasting legacy earned an A in my heart and I believe teachers are doing the same thing every day in the lives of millions of students.

Take time to thank a teacher.

I’m pretty sure Mr W would be proud if we did.

 

 

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