It’s weird the things you remember about high school.
I remember a few key things: some particularly brilliant moments that opened my mind to things I had never imagined, some world-altering tragedies which robbed my friends and me of precious innocence, a little bit in between.
But the actual day to day of class- the particular lessons- are largely lost. This is an inevitability. The countless hours spent in classrooms over four years blend together into a weird hodgepodge of growth and frustration. I know I learned a lot in the halls of Wheaton-Warrenville South. I’m just not positive when I learned it.
But every so often, there was a teacher who left an impression. Only a handful over 8 semester left a mark so profound that here, years later, I still remember exact lessons and anecdotes, some almost to the word.
Mr. Todd was one of those guys. I remember sitting in his Physics class, learning absolutely basic concepts, and having my mind blown. “We’re dealing in first approximations,” he said, referring to the fact that equations in physics don’t necessarily explain the world around us precisely- we’re taking some liberties here, admitting that we can’t be as precise as we’d like.
I remember these lessons in physics because they helped me understand how wonderfully lost we are in really understanding our universe. Physicists don’t let that get them down though- they simply try to get closer to the truth. Mr. Todd taught me to accept imprecision, to recognize that sometimes you just get as close as you can. And we’re always trying to get closer.
But that was just the curriculum, and though he taught it wonderfully it wasn’t what really made his class memorable.
I remember one day, in the middle of a unit on modeling ballistic trajectories, someone asked a question- something to do with planets and how they interact, that only vaguely related to the topic at hand. One of those questions that a normal teacher might, out of necessity, dismiss as irrelevant and move on with the lesson plan. Not Mr. Todd.
A day or two later we walked into diagrams of the solar system, and spent the entire class period exploring in impressive depth the implications of the question asked, almost absentmindedly, by a curious student. He loved to teach us things we wanted to learn. He fed our curiosities wherever they took us. I remember that so clearly.
About two years ago, I heard Mr. Todd had cancer. It hit me like the fuzz between radio stations. I remembered Mr. Todd, sure. I remembered he was a good teacher. But that chapter of my life was closed, and I hadn’t thought about him in years. It was like learning the fate of a character on a TV show you stopped watching a few seasons ago. Intriguing for a moment but, lacking a place to root into in your memory, you let it go.
After that, I didn’t think about Mr. Todd until I heard he had passed away, earlier this week. I want to make this part clear; I had no special connection with Tom Todd. We interacted for a semester, sure, but that was it. I’m sure after the semester’s end he quickly forgot my name, out of frank necessity, to make room for another class of students ignorant to the formulae that help explain our world. I was just another student in physics class, and he was just another teacher.
It’s a weird thing, thinking about old teachers. We get to know them, and then move on as quickly as the semester changes, despite the fact that the knowledge they share will stay in some corner of our brains for the rest of our lives. They leave an impression on us, but we keep rolling, growing up and moving on to different subjects in different classrooms.
But then I remember one story in particular that has stayed with me these past years.
Mr. Todd was telling us about a summer he spent working at Fermilab. After explaining the concepts behind radiation therapy in terms that made us feel we truly understood it, he told us how doctors used to map the skull prior to treatment by wrapping a wire around the patient’s head. In this way, technicians made an approximate model to help target the beams of electrons at the tumor inside the patient’s brain. Mr. Todd’s job was to figure out a way to do it better. Over the course of the summer, he came up with a solution in which the light scale from an x-ray machine was mounted on the wall of a room, and aimed at a patient sitting in a swivel chair in the middle. The patient would turn, and the light scale reading was recorded at each angle, then the results were plotted on radian paper to make a precise map.
Pretty cool. In Feynman-esque style, he taught us the wonderful virtue of being clever. Of finding the not so obvious solution. Of thinking outside the box. Yeah, one of those lessons.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say by all this. Mr. Todd is gone, and I can’t pretend like his passing will have a noticeable affect on my daily life. But now those stories aren’t about this teacher I used to have, who’s still learning new names and cracking the corniest of jokes. They’re about a man who used to be. A teacher who won’t ever meet a new student, and over the course of a few months teach them the first approximations of how the world works. There’s a ghost in my memories.
But it is a good ghost. Those memories will stay with me for the rest of my life. Mr. Todd might be gone, but his lessons are a part of me, and always will be. I’m reminded of a quote from Cosmos by Carl Sagan:
“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
Tom Todd will never teach another class, but I still carry his lessons in my memory. As long as I live he’ll still have at least one student. He longed to guide us to understanding, and seemed to take joy in helping us walk the path no matter how long or how winding it may be.
What else could you possibly ask from a physics class?
Rest in Peace, Mr. Todd.