I’m probably one of the few people my age who still stays in touch with his high school teachers and guidance counselor. But if you experienced what I did in high school, you might, too.
Today I found out the most influential teacher in my life passed away suddenly. I can’t believe it. As I sit here on this airplane, knowing I can’t make it back to Toronto for his memorial service, I want to share with all of you why this wonderful man, Woody Sparrow, changed my life. I’m 100% certain that if it were not for him, I would not be who I am (and by extension, you wouldn’t be reading this blog).
This post has nothing to do with health and disease, but I can’t let Woody pass without sharing his influence on my life.
When I was in high school I only had one dream. I wanted to be the next Benny “The Jet” Urquidez– regarded by many as the greatest kickboxer ever. I trained harder in that pursuit than in any other endeavor, before or since. Six hours every single day. I had little interest in school, and it showed. My grades were mediocre and most of my teachers, though somewhat charmed by this bizarre student who just wanted to train all day, were utterly confused by my existence.
By the eleventh grade, I wanted to drop out. I saw no need for high school and it was, I believed, getting in the way of my larger dream. The middleweight champion of the world did not need to know how to do algebra, but he’d better be well-versed in jab-jab-right-cross-left-hook-spinning-back-kick.
I plodded along, mostly because my parents forced me to say in school (the nerve!). My parents always told me the same thing most parents hopefully tell their kids – you can be anything you want if you put your mind to it – but for some reason this did not resonate. I didn’t want to go to university and I didn’t want to do anything other than be a professional fighter.
But, then I met Woody. Woody was my twelfth grade math teacher. Though I didn’t like math, I sure found him funny. He could make math so interesting. I actually went to class, paid attention, and started doing my homework.
About half way through the school year, Woody asked me if I could come in early the next morning to meet with him. The next morning we sat down and he told me that he heard from other teachers that I was not going to university. I thought to myself, “Here we go again…another lecture.”
But, no such lecture ensued. Instead he said, “I can understand that. When I was your age all I wanted to do was play in the NHL. Dreams matter, and don’t let anyone take yours away.” I couldn’t believe it.
And then he said something I’ve never forgotten, something that seemed to change the trajectory of my life overnight. He said, “But I have to tell you, Peter, somewhere inside of you is the potential to be exceptional in this [he pointed to the blackboard]. Your aptitude for mathematics is remarkable, even though you don’t see it now.” I was really taken aback. Sure, my parents had always said such things, but never someone who didn’t have to say so.
He concluded by saying, “Peter, I’ll support whatever you choose. But the world will be a better place if you do decide to go to university. You can be even greater there than in the ring.”
I’ll never know what he saw then, nor will I know why that message at that time changed everything, but it did. Over the next few months I underwent a complete metamorphosis. I became as obsessed with learning mathematics and physics as I had been in pursing my pugilistic dreams.
I decided I wanted to be an engineer, just like Woody. And because of how much I loved mathematics, specifically, I did something very unusual by getting a dual degree in engineering and applied mathematics.
I would visit Woody every time I was back in Toronto and each visit was full of non-stop laughter and ended with some new calculus problem. At Canadian universities when you graduate in engineering, you get an iron ring. The ceremony is pretty special, but can only be attended by others with iron rings. Each graduating student selects the person who will present them with their ring. Naturally, I chose Woody. It was an emotional day for both of us, as we both reflected on the discussion in the math classroom 5 years earlier.
Though I decided to go to medical school at the last minute instead of starting a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, I still had the privilege of teaching one of the sections of the freshman calculus course in my last year of university and my post-baccalaureate year. Without a doubt, the absolute highlight of the year was the day Woody came up from Toronto to see me give one of my 3 hour Monday evening calculus lectures to 300 students. I was so proud to introduce him to my students. I loved teaching calculus, and I know that passion came from Woody. He made mathematics fun and animated. He always tied it to real life. He even taught me how to draw a perfect – and I mean perfect – circle on a blackboard. I simply wanted to pass along the joy to as many as I could.
I have so many funny stories of our times together, though to this day I always think of the following one. Woody had gone to the eye doctor one day to have a usual check-up. He was sitting there in the chair and he started to think about the eye chart. He said to the doctor, “How come every eye chart always has the letter ‘E’ in it?” The doctor responded, “Because ‘E’ has 3 parallel lines in it.” To which Woody, confused, responded, “What do you mean, ‘e’ doesn’t have any parallel lines in it!”
For the non-math geeks out there, math geeks only think of ‘e’ to mean Euler’s number, the transcendental number – lower case – defined as follows:
Well, only a couple of coconuts like us could find that funny. But funny we did find it. For about the next 20 years…
If there are any teachers out there reading this, please know something. You may have a kid in your class who seems like a constant screw up (my eighth grade teacher yelled at me in the middle of class one day, “Peter Attia you are the biggest loser in this school!”), but he may not be as bad as you think. Maybe he just needs a teacher like Woody Sparrow to set him down the right path. Not with lectures, just pure love and passion.
Thank you, Woody. I don’t know where I’d be without you.