the Unambitious Science Teacher

I had a number of great teachers in high school, my favorite were Mr. McMahon, who if I recall correctly taught Median & Communication, but was really just a philosophical discussion of whatever was interesting. Mr. Gooden taught Ceramics and Design & Calligraphy. And Mr. Carey taught Physics. Mr. Carey was probably my favorite, probably because he had great stories and was a life long science nerd like myself. 

And he told us a story one day by pointing out, you know how there’s some controversy surrounding breaking classes into levels? (Like A-level English, B-Level English, etc.) Well, when he was growing up, in middle school they were broken into something like, 7-1 through 7-22. And then he explained how we tend to use IQ tests to try to measure kids throughout their schooling, though most of us aren’t really aware of it. (I have a vague recollection of visiting an nearby school when I was about 5 years old, thinking the square basketball thing on the playground looked cool — none of the schools I attended ever had one of those — and being shown flashcards. I remember one had a toothbrush and I think they asked me if I knew what it was. I don’t think I did very well because I went into readiness at age 6, and first grade at age 7, which probably gave me an advantage as one of the older kids in the class.) 

He explained how they don’t really want kids to know their IQs (how they perform on the tests), because it tends to influence their thinking, kids that perform better might become arrogant about it and kids that perform more poorly can feel defeated and give up. So for the most part we don’t really know how we do. But one day in middle school, his teacher left the class alone for a while, and they found their records and went through them. At this point he pulled his middle school yearbook out of a filing cabinet and showed us a picture of his class. One by one he pointed to each student and mentioned where they were then, and every single one of them was either a lawyer or a doctor — the one who had the highest IQ was actually like a department chair of law at some prestigious college I think. And then he told us that he was at the very bottom. And he said that’s how he became the unambitious science teacher. Though he quite a few years later, I think he said he was fed up with the system or something, and he had another job editing video at Fenway I think.

I bring all this up because I find myself in a similar position. I’ve been told I was smart my whole life pretty much, or at least since third grade when they gave me an IQ test and decided to place me in advanced math. But for most of my life I was really reluctant to accept the idea that I was unusually intelligent — it always felt too akin to racism, sexism, nationalism and patriotism, I don’t like the idea of taking pride in things we have nothing to do with, and I don’t like the idea of saying some people are more or less intelligent than others, even though that appears to be true to some degree. I still resist the idea somewhat, though I began to accept it in college, and even developed quite an ego over the last several years. My usual response to being called smart has long been to point out that pretty much everyone gets better at the things they’re interested in & enjoy, and not so good at the things they find boring or uninteresting. And I happen to find a lot of things interesting that most people don’t, science in particular, how the world works, how we know what we know. It seems most people enjoy learning how things work to some degree, I think I’m just more in the obsessive category about it. I get very excited when I learn new things I find interesting, and I tell everyone about them, they become the subject matter of my socializing — this has been the case at least since early childhood, when I came home from first grade and told my mom I wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up. At some point in high school I began to notice that I wasn’t always sure where I had learned something, and I began making an effort to include the origin of information with the information itself, so it would be along the lines of, “I read in a National Geographic…” or whatever the source was. This became useful when tracking things down to verify them, or confirm them or clarify them. At some point in college I began collecting links to things I found interesting into a single source to make them more easily retrieved. Later I began collecting facts I found interesting on a subpage

In high school gym we had to run the mile, and the class was split into two “heats” — the fast heat and the slow heat. We were told to choose whichever heat we thought was more our speed, I had done a tiny bit of cross-country running in 5th grade, when I ran my fastest mile and came in second in a race that seemed like maybe a mile and a half, but had gotten slower as I grew up, so I chose to go with the slow heat. And I finished first, for the slow heat. I looked at the times and I would have finished last in the fast heat. So I was the fastest kid in the slow heat. Late in high school and for two years after I worked at a call center where I met some friends Cynthia & Bethan. Cynthia once called me both the dumbest and smartest person she had ever met. That seemed apt. 

In college as a math-physics major I had to take Linear Algebra, which was somewhat lower level math class. I kind of blew it off, because I wasn’t really interested in it much, though later I learned that it’s central both to the matrix mechanics formulation of quantum physics as well as to many areas of computer programming, especially working in 3D and graphics programming, which are another area I’m interested in. After college I attended some classes at MIT (not enrolled, not auditing, I would just ask the teacher if I could come to class and they always said yes). I took Quantum Computing taught by Peter Shor the first year, and then Information Computation & Entropy the next year, taught by Seth Lloyd and another man I who’s name I never really learned. And then after that I took Quantum Computing again, this time taught by Seth Lloyd and Isaac Chuang. The first time, under Shor, I learned practically nothing. I met another student, Raghu, I think he said he had just gotten there from India, he helped me a bit here and there, but I didn’t really understand much still. He seemed like one of just a few students (I think there were only about 11 total anyway), who actually had a good grasp of what we were learning. I remember he taught me some basic ideas from group theory, which I also haven’t taken, and that helped some, but for the most part I was lost. The two interesting things I remember from the class are, the coffee mug trick: take a cup/mug with something in it, and try to rotate it around once (so the handle goes all the way around) without spilling. If you do this, you’re arm will have an awkward twist in it. What’s interesting is you can continue rotating the cup in the same direction, a second full revolution, and the twist in your arm will go away and return to it’s starting position. Shor demonstrated this for us one day. I guess it’s just a result in group theory, or topology, but I’ve never studied either of those formally. I tried to learn about both, but never got very far. The other memory is, Shor would usually bring a small clock to class, which would sit on his desk so he’d know when class was over. One day he came to class and had forgotten the clock, so he asked if anyone had a watch or something he could use, I offered him my cell phone (an old flip phone with a second display on the outside), and showed him how hitting the volume button would light up the time easily. He plopped it into his shirt pocket and began class. Maybe 20 minutes later I began to wonder if I had put it on silent or not. And I spent the next hour sweating about whether his pocket was about to ring and disrupt class or not. But thankfully it didn’t. When I took the class a second time with Lloyd & Chuang I picked up a lot more, but still didn’t get probably half of what they taught. And I think I remained at the bottom of the class. This was a sharp contrast to my college experience, where I was at the top of the class most of the time. So I was the fast kid in the slow heat. The dumbest kid in the smartest class. The unambitious science teacher. 

At various times I’ve wanted to be a science teacher. Part of me would enjoy teaching little kids, because a lot of that is demonstrating fun experiments. Part of me would like to teach college, but that would require I pursue an advanced degree first, preferably a PhD, but I’m not sure I want to bother with that — I’m also not sure to what degree I might have reached the limits of my curiosity, my interests have changed quite a lot in the last several years. But I think I would really enjoy teaching high school science, since that’s an age where kids are starting to think more about the broader world and it’d be a good time to grab their attention with science. I used to hesitate about choosing high school teaching over college, thinking I wanted to see “how far I could go” with learning more physics, but maybe I need to admit I’ve gone as far as I can and/or am interested or willing to go. I tend to enjoy conveying what I know much more than trying to solve the cutting edge physics problems, in part because although I’ve developed a decent superficial understanding of some cutting edge physics problems, the mathematical understanding continues to leave much to be desired, or eludes me entirely.

So this summer/fall, if my doctors give me the O-K, I’ll try to apply to be a substitute teacher. And if that goes well, maybe I’ll pursue teaching full time.

I don’t feel like proof reading this, but I’m not gonna link it or anything so it’ll remain “unfinished” like virtually everything I do.