Today, October 5, is World Teachers’ Day 2011. My twitter stream is full of people sharing stories about their most memorable teachers. I can’t even finish reading the first sentence of any of these stories without thinking of my teacher, John Barsby. I don’t know if I ever properly thanked him for what he did for me. One blog post is far from enough but it’s a start.

Mr. Barsby, or JTB as we called him amongst ourselves, was my high school math teacher. I went to St. John’s Ravenscourt, a private school in Winnipeg, MB. (Thanks, Dad, by the way, for sending me there instead of River Heights and Kelvin.) There were about 80 kids in my Grade 8, enough for 3 classes. For math, they divided the kids into 2 “regular” classes with excellent teachers, I’m sure, and 1 “advanced” class for the kids who held promise in math. Or something. That was Mr. Barsby’s class. And I was in it.

This happened each year so I was lucky enough to have JTB every year, from Grade 8 until Grade 12. When I think back to high school, this class was my cohort, the group of close friends and familiar friends with whom I got through high school.

I don’t have time to describe all the things that happened in that classroom. One, I’ve got a meeting in 45 minutes and 2) high school was a long time ago and I’m turning into an old fogey, according to my daughter. But two things not just float to the surface of my memory, but jump from my memory whenever I think about JTB.

He taught us about positive and negative numbers using red ants for positive, say, and black ants for negative. Whenever they meet, they eat each other. Red ants plus red ants means lots of red ants. Black and black: lots of black. But put red and black together and the total number of ants goes down. And what is good for red ants? Taking away some black ants: that double-negative is a good thing.

To this day, when I see one of my kid’s addition and subtraction exercises, in my mind I see what it looks like when you kick over an ant hill. Ants, red ones and black ones, scurrying about, adding and subtracting, until all the reds or blacks are gone and we’re left with just the sum.

That was how he taught us math, from positive and negative numbers right through to the 1st year University of Manitoba calculus course he somehow managed to teach us at our school. He used analogies and everyday experiences so we didn’t get bogged down in the mechanics of math. He taught us concepts.

[At this moment, I have to take a break cuz I’m gettin’ all teary-eyed. Happy tears, but still… Damn.]

Here’s what else I remember and it’s what I’m most thankful for. Even then, way back in Grade 8, I asked a lot of questions. Not stupid questions (“Mr. Baaaaarsby, did you forget to square the 3 in the top line…?”) Well, maybe as many of those as the next kid, but the ones I remember were different. From what I know now, I was asking questions that made me more expert-like. Sense-making questions, which in math are often “push it to the limits and see if it still makes sense.” Like, when N gets really large, does the perimeter of an N-gon turn into the circumference of a circle? It does? Oh, cool.

I clearly remember some not-so-great moments when I’d toss out another of these. My classmates would groan, “Oh great, another question from Peter…” I could have stopped asking. I almost did. But I distinctly remember talking to my dad about not knowing what to do, and how he told me to tell my classmates, “to go suck eggs!” and keep asking questions. And I never, NEVER remember Mr. Barsbsy groaning or giving me the slightest hint of annoyance. In my head, I don’t remember any of his answers to questions but I still feel the comfort, the warmth (help me out here, I’m a science nerd with very little practice writing about feelings…) with which he welcomed and addressed my curiosity. It’s the same feeling I’ve always had with my Dad (thanks again, Pop!).

I still ask questions. A lot of them. One of my role models is Simplicio from Galileo’s Two New Sciences. Simplicio asks a lot of questions of the wise and learned Salviati. Good questions. I like to think it’s almost like he knows what’s coming and asks just the right question at just the right time to help Salviati explain his discoveries. There’s a great line where Salviati says something akin to, “Ah, yes, excellent. Let me just draw a diagram here in the dirt…” (I’ll update when I find it. Help me out?)

You see, I’m no longer afraid to ask those questions, the ones I suspect (or know) that other people have but are embarrassed to ask, or the ones I know (or suspect) will help the expert spit out a concept in a way the audience will get it. I’m quite happy to play the naive fool and put up with the occasional, “Oh no, here he goes again…” But I pick my questions carefully and thoughtfully. Just the right question at just the right time.

For the ability to ask think up those questions and the guts to ask them, thanks, JTB. You, too, Pop.

Hi Peter! I’m a fellow “advanced math” grad from SJR (class of 04) who had the good fortune of learning from Mr. Barsby. I was just randomly googling old high school teachers, and I came across your blogpost – completely agree with everything you said. He’s one of the greatest minds and hearts I ever met. I also thought you might enjoy this youtube clip I found during my googling. Enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APfWCpM7RKU

Thanks for the video, Jeff. It reached deep into my memory and pulled out some things I haven’t thought of in, well, in a long time 🙂