I’ve had a lot of great teachers in my life, and I owe a great deal to all of them.
One of the most influential was a teacher that not too many other students liked. He was a curmudgeon of a man with a short grey brush cut and muscular forearms that looked like they were built for strangling students. I’ll call him Mr. Z. The other students in my classes had other names for him… mostly inappropriate. Now that I’m older, I can see that the guy was a hangover from the sixties. Not the Singing Sixties either. (We had other teachers like that.) It was more like the sixties of NASA director Gene Krantz during the Apollo 13 mission… “failure is not an option.”
At the time, my high school has three streams for kids. Basic, General, and Advanced. Advanced was for those kids who were most likely to go on to university, and somehow I ended up in that advanced stream. At the time I had no idea I was going to go on to become a physicist. Going into grade nine I was a relatively average kid in terms of intellectual horsepower. Sure space was cool, but I also wanted to be a private investigator. My parents subtly nudged me, suggesting I try the advanced route and if it was too challenging, I could always drop down.
Mr. Z dropped a challenge on day one.
Science wasn’t just another subject to him. It was the subject. Science was how the world worked. And if we wanted to really make big contributions to the world… become engineers, doctors, scientists, leaders… we had a responsibility to understand the world the best way that we could.
Nothing ever came easy in his class. He took off marks for seemingly trivial things. He assigned (what felt like) mountains of homework. And there were frequent quizzes. I had to come to class prepared… every day.
There were times when I would rather have had a different teacher, someone easier, nicer, someone who might let us slack off just a little.
A lot of people found the guy intimidating. But he laid out the world as he honestly saw it. Not everyone was going to become a movie star. The best way to do anything was to understand as much about it as you possibly could. And as challenging as he could be, for some reason his teaching style resonated with me.
Mr. Z set the bar and I pushed myself to meet it.