My high school math teacher, Mr. Waterman, died from ALS last year. There’s almost no way to explain the influence that he had on me as a kid. From math, to teaching, to simply understanding how one person can have a tremendous impact on another person’s life, I am a different and better person because of him. Earlier today I was tagged by another student of his for the Ice Bucket Challenge. Here’s my video – I hope the publicity from this challenge raises buckets of money for ALS reserach:
For most of this week the Quanta Magazine piece on Maryam Mirzakhani winning the Fields Medal had me reflecting on my time in high school. Here’s the article, it is absolutely fantastic:
The bit that got my attention was this paragraph about an experience she had in high school:
“Eager to discover what they were capable of in similar competitions, Mirzakhani and Beheshti went to the principal of their school and demanded that she arrange for math problem-solving classes like the ones being taught at the comparable high school for boys. “The principal of the school was a very strong character,” Mirzakhani recalled. “If we really wanted something, she would make it happen.” The principal was undeterred by the fact that Iran’s International Mathematical Olympiad team had never fielded a girl, Mirzakhani said. “Her mindset was very positive and upbeat — that ‘you can do it, even though you’ll be the first one,’ ” Mirzakhani said. “I think that has influenced my life quite a lot.”
So, she asked the school principal to provide a problem solving class and a year or two later won a gold medal at the IMO, and followed that up the next year with a perfect score. Good gracious. Even several days later I’m not sure I can wrap my head around that. That has to be one of the most amazing accomplishments (in any field) that I’ve ever heard of in my life.
That insane accomplishment aside, it also shows the influence that principal and the teachers had. I was pretty lucky, too, to have a great principal, Dr. Moller, along with Mr. Waterman. Dr. Moller had a effectively infinite trust in Mr. Waterman had gave him enormous room to teach how he wanted. We didn’t have to beg for a problem solving class, for example, because it already existed! Linear Algebra and Differential Equations, too. Really amazing and probably not what you’d expect from a high school in Omaha. Truthfully, though, it was only many years later that I realized Dr. Moller’s role, but the older I get the more I realize how important it was. The article about Mirzakhani probably made me understand the luck I had in this area a little better.
There was a nice article about Mr. Waterman in the Omaha World Herald after he died:
And a nice letter to the editor from Dr. Moller, as well:
Waterman was excellent instructor
I was John Waterman’s principal during his career at Omaha Central High School (“Waterman inspired as teacher and coach,” Sept. 29 World-Herald).
He had a rare talent for making weak math students believe in themselves and succeed in learning math, often for the first time, and he inspired strong math students to achieve even more than they ever expected. His math teams’ records still are among the best in Nebraska high school competition. He was among the first in the state to recognize computer capabilities for teaching math, and he implemented computer programs and activities that were cutting edge for the time.
John has former students working all over the world who would testify that he was an exemplary teacher taken from us much too early.
G.E. Moller, Omaha
You never know how someone is going to influence your life, but I certainly was the beneficiary of some good luck in high school. I sure hope the Ice Bucket promotion raises lots of money for ALS research.