Thursday, July 12, 2018

Teacher Tributes: Physics

Surprisingly, considering the nature of physics, this tribute is probably the least scientific of the lot.

I had fantastic science teachers through most of high school, but the biggest help I got from one of them had almost nothing to do with the curriculum.

There was a large portion of high school where I was…
For lack of a better word.

I won’t use the term “depression.”  That’s a true medical condition and I won’t belittle what anyone truly suffering from it goes through by comparing it to my minor issues.

But there was a period in high school where there was a whole lot of apathy in me and a massive lack of needed drive and ambition. 

Luckily, I have a warehouse of useless crap for a brain, and was able to keep my grades decent in most areas, even though I wasn't applying myself.

It wasn’t just schoolwork, everything went through a weird phase.  I asked a girl I was friends with out, mostly because I thought I should have a girlfriend.  Then, lacking the knowledge or focus to be in anything resembling a relationship, I didn't ask her out again for a year.  After she reminded me of that, we went to the mall or movies less than once a month for a little while, and I skipped her birthday party because I procrastinated a history paper to the last possible moment.  This was all connected to my overall apathy until I was deservedly dumped.

I probably still owe her an apology.

The end of Sophomore and beginning of Junior year was the lowest point.  I spent way too much time watching television and zoning out after school instead of working.   My grades did start to suffer in areas my brain wasn’t naturally tuned to, like German class. Yes, my lack of ability at languages reared its head at an early age. 

I wasn’t  close to failing or anything, but despite being a supposedly smart kid, and having top grades previously, I didn't make the National Honor Society in Junior year like most of the gang did, and I was supposed to.

My folks and friends did notice something going on and brought it up in helpful ways, but you rarely listen to those closest to you when they’re right about personal stuff.

Physics, however, was a high point on my report card.  I had a natural affinity for it, meaning the facts stuck in my sponge like head. Plus, it was all derivable from some basic formulas. (F=ma!) On most tests, I’d forgo studying, start with the basics, and derive everything I needed to get a great grade with the least effort.

The physics party ended when it was Science Project time.

My apathy was at dangerous levels, and I spent a great many weekends staring at a blank IBM PC in the Den with a bunch of books and science magazines scattered about me, while not coming up with a topic or experiment idea.  It was like the worst writers block I could possibly imagine.  I would go down stairs to work on it and feel like my brain was totally immobilized.

The weekend before it was due, I threw together what was basically a four page research paper with comically wide margins, glued it to a poster board with a few diagrams and called it a project.

My total lack of “give a crap” that year, also led to me being staggeringly out of shape.  Having to run to physics straight from gym class had me sucking wind while giving a presentation that was just sucking in general.

I got a D.  The lowest grade on a major assignment or test I’d ever gotten.

I went to the teacher, Mr. Gambino, after school to ask about improving it, and the only answer possible was “Do another project.”  I couldn’t face the Den again, and refused.

A bit after that, Mr. Gambino and I were walking together down the long hallway downstairs of Morris Knolls.  We shared a fandom of goofy jokes, and old time comedians as well as his subject, and were chatting easily.  His word problems were usually funny and often involved elephant jokes.

Yes, we got along well.

I'm not sure how it happened, if he planned it or seized the moment.  All I know is he turned gravely serious and deeply disappointed looking and started expressing that disappointment and confusion about me. 

It was sudden, and I misunderstood what he was saying at first.

I started defensively replying that it was only the project that was a mess and otherwise my grades in his class were fantastic, but he cut me off.

He said, “No…that’s not it.”
He paused for a long time and looked “into” me.
“You could be THE BEST.”

We talked briefly after that, but it was only unneeded details at that point.  His intonation and expression implying that he meant far more than physics and that I not only could be, but should be the best if only I applied myself.

He left me standing there in the hallway, stunned, ashamed, and resolved.

It was exactly the right thing I needed to hear at exactly the right time.  After that day, I refocused in a lot of ways. My grades picked up, I aced my AP tests, and I made National Honor Society for the next year. That summer I walked CONSTANTLY every day Up the Lake, cut down on snacks and went back to school Senior year with much less of me than I had left with in June.

I won’t say the apathy never came back.  This blog is actually a big retaining wall against it.   There have been times in my adult life where the "don't give a crap" monster grows again.  Forcing myself to write two posts a week for over seven years means that I always have something due.  If I start to feel the blankness coming back at work, knowing I have to and then knocking out a post at lunch, even a short stupid one, (which may explain much of the content on this blog) pushes through the block.

But the main way through it, is remembering a teacher who didn't see what I was, but reminded me what I could and should be.

And that is why this Teacher Tribute is for Mr. Gambino.


longbow said...

Was RPI your first choice?

longbow said...

...and then the montage began

The Taj said...

As we reminded everyone at RPI juggling club, you are "The Amazing Jeff!"

(ignore for a second that everyone there was "The Amazing xxx!")


Thanks for making me smile today!

Jeff McGinley said...

Scott, awesome reference there. Thanx.
Technically you can say it was my first choice. I did get rejected by MIT but I really didn't like the vibe there at all and pretty much had accepted the RPI acceptance when they said no.

Thanx Phil, we were an Amazing bunch, weren't we?