Thank a Teacher 2015

Dear Mr. Robinson, Dear Mrs Robinson,

The year was 1986, I was a senior in high school. The Challenger had blown up in January but by Spring we were all heads-down preparing for various AP tests.

The test I felt most confident for was AP Calculus AB. We all took it on a sunny day in May, almost 30 years ago. Afterwards we celebrated at a pizza place and remembered the questions and answers that we had gotten. I was pretty sure I had gotten a 5 based on what we saying over pizza. However, that wasn’t the only reason.

The other reason was that our teacher was Richard L. Robinson, in the math department at Olympia High School, in the Spring of 1986. He was disciplinarian, he was quirky, and he taught Calculus. He taught other classes besides calculus, in fact if he hadn’t taught an accelerated course that got students from Algebra to Calculus in 4 years, then I never would have taken Calculus. It’s a powerful thing to say to a teenager that you think they can do something which they don’t even think they can do. It’s a powerful thing to say to a teenager that they can rise to a challenge. It’s a powerful thing to ask a teenager to work harder than they have ever worked before.

Mr. Robinson did all that and more for a few of us in his AP Calculus class. That was the year that he had shoulder surgery. His right arm was sometimes in a sling, but sometimes he would take it out of the sling and exercise it. He was pained in doing that, but he explained that pain was necessary, as necessary as the cutting that enabled the healing, the pain enabled the recovery. He would swig a gallon milk-jug of aloe vera juice and teach us various things, including Calculus.

I remember the class starting off with a parable about Mr. Shakey and how Mr. Shakey wanted to know how fast his car was going. We had a graph of Shakey’s car and its position versus time, but what was the next step? We must have spent 3 days just pondering this question. It seemed like a lifetime. But what does it take to adopt an idea and call it a friend? Don’t you need to spend time with it? I now teach physics, and when I say “the slope of the position time graph at a point is the instantaneous velocity”, I realize I am going back to an idea that became concrete me almost 30 years ago.

I recall a few more things about that class, about our homework. I can still feel the competitiveness of some of us to get solutions first, or to be victorious over one homework challenge. I remember one assignment: to use the limit of the difference quotient to derive the quotient rule for derivatives. Mr. Robinson had a way of motivating me, of challenging me.

So, 30 years ago, when it came time to take the AP Calculus AB test, I was ready. I had drilled on prior versions. I had practiced and rehearsed all the different types of problems. Today as I look over the free-response questions (FRQ) for 1986 Calculus AB, I can relive how I felt when I cut open that green test booklet and saw them for the first time.

“OK, curve-sketching problem, got it.”

“OK, piecewise curve-sketching problem, watch out for vertical asymptotes, check.”

“Problem involving the physical interpretations of the first and second anti-derivatives of acceleration, don’t forget the integration constant, that’s how you incorporate initial conditions. Got it.”

“Interesting function definition. Sketch it. Watch out for evaluating limits at the boundaries. I can do this.”

“Ah, the normal distribution. And an integral function that we need to find the extrema for. Need to be careful here, extrema can happen at the boundaries of your domain. Will take a while but do-able.”

“Ahh, yes, here it is, the volume/area of revolution problem. We were told to expect one of these. Interesting bounding curves, trig functions. Which one is above the other? Where do they meet? OK, easy, we’ll do this one last, but at least we know what’s here. Dig in. Go.”

In this anti-testing climate. There are a few that say: “Bring it! Let me show you what I know!” These voices frequently belong to those students blessed with ability, or tenacity, or a good teacher, or all three. Of the latter I am most sure, so thank you Mr. Robinson!

After graduation, Mr. Robinson and I worked out my schedule for my first few years of college. His advice to me was to pursue engineering since he had observed that I wanted to get solutions, and didn’t have much patience for theory or pure math. Taking his advice set my course for many years in college, graduate school and a career. He would probably scoff to know that I am a teacher today, but he should know that because of what he taught me and because of how he made me feel, I am forever in his debt. I make a feeble attempt each day to pay that debt forward. Some days I succeed, some days I don’t. I keep trying. I won’t give up.


John Weisenfeld, Science Teacher, Pasco High School, Pasco WA

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