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. teachers have such power when it comes to crazy deluded teens. it’s wonderful to encounter someone who can make such a difference in your life. you and i both were very lucky.

    i loved my biology teacher in hs who urged me to go to college as he saw i had the aptitude. up until then i was expecting to work in an office after graduating-the attitude of my working class family and the whole staten island social milieu dictated that. thanks to him i got the hell out. also thanks to a nys regent’s scholarship that waived tuition at the state u i attended since my large family didn’t have a pot to p*ss in. (going to college was much more affordable in the late ’60’s and help to do so more generous btw.)

  2. Peter,

    Many thanks for the story and for the laudatory reminiscences of your high school teacher.
    It is true that sometimes people see things in us that we don’t see (or choose not to see) in ourselves.

    Yours is truly a remarkable story and one that serves as an inspiration to the greater community here.


  3. Such a sad loss of a friend, mentor and very good man.
    My deepest condolences. From reading your tribute to him, I now feel that sense of loss too.
    Our world desperately needs people of this calibre and his death at such an early age is so troubling.
    I visited the obituary and after reading it, I wondered if he perhaps died of a cardiovascular event.
    If so, these are the deaths I find so very distressing.
    The scientific and nutritional work you are doing, Peter, is a gift to our disastrously misinformed populous, and I believe that it has, and will, make a difference to the lives of a great many individuals who may have been headed down the poor health rabbit hole.
    Even more importantly, I believe that governments will hear your science based clarion call and the growing grass roots movement to end harmful nutritional beliefs and practices. Perhaps this very important work can bring longer, healthier lives to our dearest friends and families.
    I am sure he knew that you were headed for this kind of leadership.

    • I think Woody died of a broken heart, actually. His son (who was my age and who I was friends with) died about 10 years ago from a 100% preventable medical mistake…outright malpractice. Just the most awful thing. He was never the same after. I don’t imagine any parent who has to bury their child can ever recover.

  4. Your tribute to your friend and mentor was very moving and such a gift for all who had the privilege to read it. I am so sorry for your loss and I hope that writing and sharing your story will provide some closure and healing from the trauma of the sudden loss of one so special. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Peter,
    Wonderful post. Its amazing how some high school teachers have the ability to see inside people through to their inner core of greatness. Glenn Arena was my high school math teacher who rescued me. I am not a high school teacher – just a plumber / amateur snake rustler but when I met you in 2001 I also new you were destined for greatness.
    TB S

    • Ted! Too kind of you to weigh in. (Ted and I were closest friends in residency and spent much of our internship together just trying to stay afloat.) I don’t think I realized that you, also, had a profound influence in your life from a teacher. I had always assumed you were born brilliant (Ted is brilliant, by the way). Great to see you last month. Your turn to get back to San Diego again.

    • Hi there! Just happened to notice your comment about Glenn Arena! He was my Precalc teacher for a while in high school, and I’ve been meaning to get in touch with him again. Wondering if he’s still in New York? Heard he moved to Cali recently. Have you heard anything?

  6. Sorry for your loss.

    I’ve been slowly digesting the contents of your site and just listened to the podcast you did with Jimmy Moore. You are a fantastic speaker, and I was wondering if you’ve ever thought about doing your own podcast?

    It actually takes less time then typing out a post… at least that’s what people tell me.

    • Less time to record, but still huge time to organize my thinking. Podcasts are great for Q&A, but I find them disorganized for detailed stuff.

  7. I’m touched and sorry for your loss. Thank you Woody and thank you Peter. You both have had an impact in my life.

  8. There are so many ways that your story touched me. My father was much like you in high school, but his dream was basketball. He didn’t have a high school teacher who opened his eyes to his potential, but when he came back from Korea and started at Cogswell Engineering College, he was saved. He ate up every math and science class there – discovered his gift and his passion. And his nickname? Woody.

    And I am a teacher, as was my mom, as is my husband. And these stories always cut right through to our hearts. We show up every day, in spite of the nonsense thrown at us by politicians and educrats, and we give our hearts to our students. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Thanks very much for sharing, Laura. It’s great to hear so many others understand what kind of an impact someone like Woody can have on a student.

  9. For some reason I could read your blog a few days ago but now when i click on a blog entry, a white page comes up where the text should be. Very weird. Any ideas on how to solve this?

  10. I was prescribed oxycodone pills for pain. Can opiates affect weight loss or kick me out of Ketosis if my eating has not changed?

  11. Peter, this was a very moving tribute to someone who sounds like a fantastic teacher, but also a great man. It reminded me of my favorite teacher in high school, my physics teacher Mr. Bailey. He is still alive and teaching today despite being diagnosed with MS several years ago. He had (and still has) such a passion for the subject and his students that even those of us who had never been good at math (me) loved and were able to excel in his class. He demonstrated principles of physics by letting us launch model rockets on the football field and shoot water balloons at each other, but also challenged us with projects like building a functional hovercraft -that could support a rider- which we would then race.

    I stumbled across your site only a few days ago, but I have been glued to it ever since. You have a passion for the subject, as well as a serious knack for explaining the underlying biochemistry in a way that even someone who struggled and slept through biology and chemistry (again, sadly, me) can easily understand. I wouldn’t doubt one bit that this is only part of Woody’s influence on you. I also believe that teaching others, though in blog form instead of the classroom, carries on his legacy. Thank you.

  12. Hi Peter,

    I’m wondering whether I’ve missed something because I’m not aware of human nutritional studies, you or most objective scientists, would consider sound science, that point in this direction. In fact you are setting up a research initiative to deal with this lack of good science.

    Now there is a study involving significant numbers, that builds on earlier studies and appears to my untrained mind, to be relatively sound. Moreover the researchers say meat is bad and we should be eating fruits and vegetables for cardiac health.

    I wondered why weights weren’t published and I didn’t understand the intervention rationale but otherwise, as a non-scientist, I’m left wondering what’s fundamentally wrong this latest study?.

    Robert I

  13. Hi Peter,
    I’m a h.s. math teacher in the midwest, due to retire in about 10 weeks. I appreciate how much your teacher meant to you and it is so good that you’d obviously let him know many times over the years how much influence he had. One of the odd things about teaching is how uncertain the result is sometimes. I was moved by your account.

    John Dilsaver
    Sparta, MO

  14. Peter, Woody was totally right! You are brilliant and the world is a better place because you decided to go to university. I really regret being so shy at Queens because now I wish I had gotten to know you better instead of hiding in the back of the classroom and wishing the partial derivative equations would make as much sense to me as they did to you. When I heard you were going to medical school after Queens I was blown away. And now you’re tackling obesity! I’m pretty sure you’ll figure out this problem too. You are smart, stubborn and tenacious – a killer combination. You’re making Woody proud.

    • Julia, I can’t believe we’ve re-connected after so many years! It’s just wonderful to hear from you. Your comment is so kind, and it means the world to me. I don’t know if you’re right, but I’m optimistic that we are at an inflection point. It won’t be overnight, but little by little, progress is being made on all fronts.

  15. Your story is very touching.

    I too had some really good teachers in high school that made a tremendous difference.

    Keep up the good work!

  16. I found this blog at just the right time. I have a brilliant, beautiful, eleven year old daughter. I was told today that my brilliant square peg was going to be a loser. I wish there were more teachers like your teacher, Woody. She doesn’t believe me when I tell her she’s amazing and can do many things. But, I’m going to have her read your blog. If I could tell you how amazing she is, maybe you’d think, “ah, a mother’s love.” No, my daughter has the capacity to manifest great change, but she just wants to raise horses and draw. She has no time for school work. But, your blog gave me some insight. I will try again to inspire her. Thank you for this blog and your site.

    • I believe you. Until that teacher comes along keep doing exactly what you’re doing. The only reason I was still in school to even meet Woody, was because of my parents telling me how good I could be, though I may have only half-believed them.

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