A great teacher is someone who walks by your side even when you part ways. The lessons left behind last the remainder of your days. During the course of my life, there have been many who have come and gone, but only a few who really stayed. They are the ones who made me strong. They are the ones who made me who I am. The teachers who help transform the boy into the man. I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. One repayable only by applying what I learned to good use. As a small token of appreciation, I decided to write about the teachers that had the greatest formative impact on my life. The first of which is Mr. Chan.
He was my math teacher in Middle School and High School. He was a true believer. The teacher who would always walk an extra mile to solidify a lesson, to challenge his students, to inspire them to excel. I always pictured him as Bruce Lee, a man who had an inner strength that far exceeded his slender build. He wore glasses, dressed reasonably formally and carried the proverbial pen in his breast pocket. His age could not have exceeded his mid-twenties, but his wisdom and intelligence did. He was born in Thailand, but attended college in the US and spoke English fluently without an accent. But English was not his first language, physics was, and mathematics was its queen.
Others taught math as if it was a home cooking class. This is the recipe, here are the ingredients and this is how you prepare the meal. Now do it yourselves. Not Mr. Chan. Textbooks did not set the bounds of his universe, only nature did. He taught mathematics as one of the languages of the universe. Always illustrating how it applied to real life by drawing parallels to nature and physics. For example, he explained how the Fibonacci integer sequence would give rise to a spiral when drawn on a piece of paper, one reproduced in the arrangement of leaves on a stem, in seashells or in the curves of waves. My mother later complemented his lesson by showing me how it applied to painting. In another instance, when I studied chaos theory, he explained to me how it related to the weather, illustrating the current limits imposed on weather forecasting. This is how he solidified his lessons, by going beyond what words and numbers on textbooks had to say, allowing nature to speak for itself.
None of this was required reading. It all derived from extra credit problems he distributed in class and the unassigned reading he advised me to undertake. He challenged his students to do more than was required in order to appreciate the intricate complexities and deceptive simplicities of mathematics and science. He probably realized that many of us would never return to it in the future, so he had one opportunity to awaken a latent interest for his subject matter. The history of science is rife with discord, not only between scientists themselves, but also between them and the public. Fostering greater understanding was not the job for a regular teacher, but one for a peacemaker. This was perhaps the greatest lesson Mr. Chan ever taught me: the importance of peace and compassion.
“Andre, what the world really needs is not people who simply know, but people who both know and care.”
This admonishment accompanied me throughout the years. The understanding of the universe never takes place in a vacuum. There are serious ethical, moral, political and social ramifications to scientific discovery and technological innovation. The scientist has a responsibility to expand the realms of human understanding of the universe, but he also has a responsibility to comprehend the implications of his work, lest his talents be misapplied for ulterior motives. The example we discussed in depth was the Manhattan Project, the scientific program leading to the development of the first nuclear weapon. Oppenheimer, one of its leading scientists, was a tragic figure who dedicated himself mind, body and soul towards developing the same weapon that would grant humanity the ability to obliterate itself. He would later say that he had become death, the destroyer of worlds.
In order to avoid a similar fate, a scientist must ensure the peaceful application of scientific discovery by undertaking a multidisciplinary approach, always guiding himself by the moral compass that is compassion. This he taught me not with words, but with actions. One cannot explore the vast expanses of the universe from the confines of a box. Though he was a math and physics teacher, he read extensively about the most diverse matters, taking an active interest in history, philosophy, politics, chess and literature. He was one of the first teachers who infused in me the idea that we should strive to be like Leonardo da Vinci. If not in ability, at least in the breadth of intellectual and artistic interest.
Following Leonardo´s example, only by glimpsing at the vastness of human knowledge can we escape imprisonment inside boxes designed for specialists who know increasingly more and more about less and less. People incapable of assessing the impact of their work or even analyzing the most pressing problems of our time for what they are, multifaceted enigmas that should be explored through various angles, requiring multiple branches of knowledge. No wonder so many of the most urgent questions of our day remain unanswered. Generalist are becoming extinct. Specialists reign supreme. The industry of citations has become the brothel of knowledge. All of this I would only come to learn in the years ahead, but the importance of being well rounded came from him.
Aside from a multidisciplinary approach to tackling problems and understanding their ramifications, he also emphasized the need for basic human compassion. When he said that the world needed more people who cared, this is my personal understanding of his words. In mathematical terms, if current scientific understanding is the limit of the function of human knowledge as it approaches omniscience, we should be mindful of the destination. If reflection precedes action, then omniscience leads to omnipotence. He who all can conceive, all can achieve. These are attributes of God, not human beings.
Scientific understanding leads to power, requiring the responsibility that only compassion can provide. In my opinion, the source of this compassion must be the ethical, moral, spiritual chains that bind the arbitrary use of power. The 21st century will be the age of widespread genetic engineering, direct brain-machine interaction, quantum computing, persistent nuclear proliferation, artificial intelligence and universal automation. Some of this may improve the lives of many, but it may also afflict the lives of many more. Genetically codified social stratification, the violation of freedom of thought and rampant unemployment caused by automation, may all be on the horizon precisely at a time when the world is undergoing the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Human compassion has never been in greater demand if lasting peace is ever to be attained.
In my personal life, he also showed me the meaning of compassion by taking an active interest in my future and inspiring me to apply to college. Despite my academic merits, my parents lacked the financial means to send me abroad to college. He was the one who explained to me that there were universities in America who offered scholarships to qualified international students in need. He gave me a book listing over 3,000 universities and set me on my way to devising a plan that could bridge the seemingly insurmountable gap between a childhood dream and an adult reality.
He was a strong believer in the American educational system and wanted me to attend a university where I could fulfil my potential. Keep in mind that all of this was taking place in an age where the internet was still in its infancy. WebCrawler and AltaVista were the search engines of choice, universities did not openly divulge information online and the admissions process itself was entirely paper based. He also wrote me a letter of recommendation, gave me advice on the requisite standardized exams and even interviewed me as an alumnus for one of the schools I applied.
None of this was required by his official job description. He showed me the meaning of compassion by taking an active interest in my life. He drove me to excel not only inside the classroom, but outside as well, in life. When I first showed my tentative list of universities to my admission counselor, her reaction was to laugh at me, suggesting that I reconsider the choices made and apply to a few more safety schools. I had chosen difficult schools only because they were the ones offering aid and I could barely afford the application fees themselves. But Mr.Chan´s support was unwavering. "Just do it!”, he said. Nike should be the one paying him royalties. In the end, it is unlikely that multiple Ivy League institutions would have ultimately admitted me with scholarship offers were it not for him.
As fate would have it, we lost contact throughout the years. Last I heard, he married and went to graduate school. Life took us in different directions. I had my own personal wars to face, but the lessons he left behind have stayed with me to this day. The people who make a difference in your life always come to stay.