Friday, March 12, 2010

Remembering Sy

Pay Attention.  One never knows how a seemingly common event can leave a lasting impression.

I was 26 years old when I began working at Del Mar.  Sy was nearing the end of his teaching career while I was in the early stages of mine.  As the youngest staff member, I was lucky to be surrounded by seasoned veterans who to this day have no idea how they helped influence my career, and Sy was one of them.

There is not a recipe for outstanding teachers, but if there were, it would be bottled and sold under the Sy Feldman brand. This was a teacher who had it all; patience, kindness, talent, creativity, intelligence and an uncanny ability to make science meaningful and real.  Sy challenged his students to think.  And he challenged me to think as well.

While observing Sy teach one day, a young man shot up his hand eager to ask a question during a lesson on mass.  “How much does the earth weigh?”  Quite an impressive concept for a 12 year old I remembered thinking at the time.  Without missing a beat, Sy responds, "the mass of the earth is 6 sextillion, 588 quintillion tons.  And it’s getting heavier he added."  He then proceeded to engage the kids on why they thought the earth was getting heavier.  The dialogue was intriguing as he continued to pepper his students with questions. At 26, I was becoming more and more keenly aware of what I didn’t know.  Like a 12 year old, I leaned forward in the desk, mouth agape, curious to know the answer. 

After class, I walked over to Sy and mentioned how impressed I was with his knowledge and the way he engaged the students.  He blushed, thanked me ever so humbly as he prepared himself for the next group of students to enter.

26 years later, I still remember vividly that one lesson of that one day.  I remember him writing the number 6 sextillion on the board, trying to squeeze in all the zeros in such a small space. I remember how effortless it was for him to impart his knowledge.  I remember the excitement in his voice as he talked with the kids.  I remember his sense of awe. He inspired me to be a better teacher.  Sy passed away this week.  I’m so very grateful I got to witness a master at work.

The answer by the way is meteorites!