January 9, 2013

Mental models

Thank you, Woody

Read Time 4 minutes

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:

Euler's number

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.

Yours forever,


Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash

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  1. Peter, First I would like to send you my sympathies as you grieve the loss of this exceptional person in your life. Grief is the flipside of love and your relationship with Woody – it’s just waiting to be redefined (one of the tasks of grieving). Second, thank you for sharing this wonderful homage to your math teacher. I hope this message will strengthen the resolve in each teacher who reads it to make that difference for even one student!
    You obviously have a great deal of perseverance in anything you undertake though i prefer to see you doing what you are doing today rather than see you fight GSP! Taka care.

  2. I can only hope that at least one of my husband’s (a high school math teacher) students has this experience! It would make the endless 16 hour days worth it.

    • very true. I had an exceptional math coach, Robert Prior, and he made mathematics alive! Life got in the way and only now, in my 47th year, I am able to take up and undergrad major in Math/Stat. BUT my son has a greater story to tell: he dropped out of high school and begrudgingly started an entrance certificate to uni. He found 2 awesome teachers, both philosophers and both highly knowledgeable in mathematics. It is because of these two fabulous teachers that my son has acquired entrance into advance science with a major in astrophysics and astronomy. Teaching IS a vocation, not just a 9-5 job.

  3. Peter, I am so very sorry for your loss of this special man…and I know how much it must hurt to miss his service. The world is forever changed when we lose someone we love. He must have been something else. And I am so glad that he saw your great potential. I know that you inspire people and encourage them every day. That is a wonderful homage to your great teacher and friend. I will pray for him. I suggested once that you dedicate your conference room at NuSi to Richard Feynman and hang a few pictures and quotes on the walls. I think that maybe it would be nice to have a little picture of you and your great teacher in your personal office… Thank you Blessings, maryann

  4. Thank you for sharing, and sorry for your loss. This Post compelled me to reply. A random act of remembering. 🙂

    If I may share here my experience (30 years ago) apologies for it being long winded, as I never have acknowledged those teachers who have inspired me, and here would be just as good a place as any to start. I am an Indigenous woman living in South Australia,born in 1965 and yes a struggle for my family growing up. I was ‘that’ unruly girl at school (from single parent family and low income)from a different culture, A tomboy who skipped class, smoked in the toilets, and got into fights with boys, I was not liked at all. Then I was forced to move (after running away from home) which I did not expect, and to the city. The first school I attended was a disaster, suspended for beating a boy up in class for acting inappropriately towards the girls, so then another move this time to a School that was well renowned in in a very good suburb. I was so stressed about the idea of moving from my school, I knew where I stood -defiant and heading no where . I also hated the idea of wearing a uniform down to my ankles(previously very short), and it all being an ugly dark brown, of all colours!!! blah!! I felt like a tree in forest of nerds. OMG!…. ! well, I was in for a surprise, the teachers were shockingly wonderful! they treated you as friends, and yes I did get caught smoking in the toilets, but the teacher who caught me was the nicest ever ,how bizarre! I did get punished, I had to sit in isolation and copy a booklet on why smoking is bad, painfully long and boring, that was it! no harsh treatment or put downs, just education! yep stopped smoking too. what I liked is they never labled me as troublesome, and we all moved on and started fresh. It was from from then I started to change my mind about school. I had my good subjects I loved e=nglish even though I did struggle, I persisted and paid attention, and in home economics, I ‘like’ sewed a costume outfit for a school production, woot!. Loved Biology and thrived on all the info- KPCOFGS!…..Maths, total flop! sorry, I had a slightly manic Italian version of kramer! spent most of the time laughing. I even went on school camps, and showed some smart city kid how to skin a rabbit, but I had have that one teacher who stood out, and that was my very cute English teacher. I had never read a book successfully. I tried in year 8 ‘sun on the stubble’ good lordy I just could not read it (except readers in primary school) I had very poor reading skills, and I worried about what to do when one of our activities was to chose a book and do a review. I was embarrassed for the first time in my young life, how could I fudge this? what book do I chose?. So my teacher resolved this and chose one for me, he said to me “do not be put of by the cover or the characters, its a great story!”…… REALLY?? are you serious!…. The book was ‘ Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nihm’ Good Lordy! ( nice adult language) e=wtf! my teacher is not who I thought he was hip, and was in fact a weirdo! I took it home and shut myself in my room ( not to be seen a childs book) and read it. well! totally loved it, and succeeded in my assignment. the next thing I was doing was flitting frequently in my brown long skirt to the library, for anything on all sorts of books, fiction and non fiction, I had a new love, I felt good for once about myself. My next challenge was an assignments where I had to write a short story on any topic, mine was called ‘blind date’ oh yeh teenage dreaming! Well I wrote like 8 pages!! the longest , and the only thing I have ever written! I got a AAA++ for it, and! he (my godly teacher) thought it was so good, he read it out to the class, totally hilarious and well received . That was my moment ! I felt like I belonged and I have never looked back, I kept that assignment for years, but sadly lost it somewhere in my moves. So reading has been an integral big part of my life, something that might not seem important to some , but to me its what saved me from a dreaded future. (I know I went home to be saddened by some of my cohorts life choices) So avid reading aside, I went on to become a veterinary Nurse, Gourmet cook, Cake decorator, early childhood educator, a few years in hospitality, and now Personal Trainer currently working as Well Being Officer, along with being (hopefully) an inspiring mother. I was told my employment opportunities were dismal, but I certainly was not the one they saw in their crystal ball. I have self educated in many areas, especially health and nutrition, hence why I am commenting on your blog post, and liked your FB page. I am where I am best ,and I am happy, I never went to University(may still end up there, there is still some time lol), but I am still so grateful for that teacher, that’s all you need a tiny bit of inspiration, a tiny prick of it, no matter where it may lead you, That teacher told me I will be writing books one day, that day will come 🙂 So I say thanks to that teacher and Mrs FRISBY! And To the other teachers out there, that a particular child is in your class for a reason, bring out the best in them, you bring out the best in you, 🙂 Yes TEACHERS you inspire, and you may not even know it, maybe not until three decades later!

    Jen 🙂

  5. My sympathies to you. My favorite law school professor passed away a couple of years ago, and I ended up feeling such a profound sadness when I had learned of it. He was one of the good ones, who actually cared. He took the time to try to connect with his students. Law school was a time when I was feeling a little bit lost in my life, as I had relocated to Los Angeles, and wasn’t having the best time. Along the way, my professor found out I had an interest in science, and specifically neuroscience, and he really pushed me to apply the interest I had in science in my budding law career. We kept in contact over the years, often trading notes about interesting developments in field of neuroscience. His son was pursuing a degree in neuroscience at UCSD, where I went to undergrad, and he often had questions for me about my experiences there.

    I have since moved back to San Diego and heard from an old classmate that our beloved professor had passed away. I didn’t know what to do when I had heard he died – I just felt like I needed to do something in his memory. I’ve resolved to never forget his influence, to try to help others, and to continue to find ways to pursue things I’m interested in. One day I hope to set up something to help new law students to honor his memory.

  6. Peter, what a powerful reminder of the impact that educators can make. Thanks for sharing.


  7. “I did something very unusual by getting a dual degree in engineering and applied mathematics”.

    And that, as I see it, is the kind of person we want to give us advice! A mathematician and an engineer – someone who appreciates rigorous logic and can calculate consequences, as well as a practical person who can take other people’s knowledge and use it to accomplish desirable results.

    Much of the trouble with today’s world is that far too many people are in positions of power who know nothing (and care less) about either mathematics or engineering. Instead, they know about law, marketing, public relations, politics…

    Plato’s followers had it right when they put up that sign over the entrance to the Academy: “Let no one ignorant of mathematics enter”.

    • Just an “aside” from a newcomer to this blog- copywork is being revived in the homeschool arena. I just learned of this practice this summer and am using it now with my two left at home for spelling , actually.

  8. So sorry to hear about your loss – but you may be pleased to learn that your story made me think of my favourite teacher – Mr Woods

    I was 11 when he taught me and his stories of greek gods and Roman philosophers led me to a degree which included the classics. he was also interested in digging for old relics and I went along with him once to dig for treasures. We found a few old bottles and one dead dog…but I had the best time and learnt so much from that man.

    We all need one person in our lives who inspires us just because they want to. Not because they think they ought to as your parent or because they are paid to. A genuinely caring and interesting person will always be worth their weight in gold. And they should always become teachers.

  9. Wow thank you for that Peter. I’m sorry. Please know the passion Woody Stired in you was felt by me now. I see his delivery of curiosity and acceptance as critical in communication. Thank you.

  10. Peter, That was a beautiful and moving tribute to your friend and mentor. My deepest sympathies for your loss. I am grateful to the Universe that he was put in your path, changed the trajectory of your life and grateful that you were put in my path because you have changed the trajectory of my life. I believe your bond with Woody was sacred and I think you will find that he stays with you and the bond takes another form.

  11. Hi Peter! Wow, what a great post. I was lucky to have a couple of teachers who had a huge impact on me, one of whom I continue to dream about to this day, almost 32 years after graduating high school! Like Woody this teacher also connected with me through humour, which is how I suspect many of the best ones do. And they don’t talk down to us, or lecture to us like our parents, and in some cases (like mine) may be the first adult who relates to us as though we are already adults. That faith, trust and respect is so powerful.

    I’m so sorry for your loss but I’m very grateful to Woody for having helped you to see your potential! As you are no doubt beginning to realise, Peter, you are making a difference in the world.

    Thank you so much!

    Danielle (in Montreal 🙂

    • Yup, sounds like you know exactly what I experienced. What’s really great today is hearing stories from other people who also had their own Woody Sparrow.

  12. Dammit Peter, I hate it when you make me cry. I’m happy for you that you had Woody in your life.

  13. Einstein said he stood on the shoulders of great men(women). Indeed you are standing on the shoulders of a great man. You are an extra ordinary teacher of important concepts in a world of misunderstanding and uncertainty and we need you to continue.
    My wife was also influenced by two teachers that inspired her. She was committed to pass on her story and inspiration to the next students in the chain. She just retired after 40 years of teaching. She did receive Teacher of the Year for two school systems 25 years apart.

    • Great to hear. Completely agree with Albert on that one. We all simply stand on the shoulders of those before us, and it’s our obligation to do so for those ahead of us.

  14. My deepest condolences Peter. And yes, thank you Woody. The world is now indeed a better place 🙂

  15. It is a beautiful and profound life story, Peter. Thank you for taking the time to reflect and share with all of us. It made me think of my elementary school teachers and college professors. I never had high school hence no memory to recall. I will share your post with my wife and three sons (19, 16, 12). We can all find our own Woody and can all be a Woody for someone else.

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