Mr. Scott Turns 80 . . .
My genius high school math teacher, Jim Scott, who taught not only mathematics but also music and art, along with physics as well, celebrates his 80th birthday Saturday, September 21, 2013, Arkansas time, so I and two other students -- Deva and Pete -- have each written him a letter of appreciation. Here's mine:
Dear Mr. Scott,I can't attend his celebration, unfortunately, since I'm halfway around the world, but somebody will read this letter aloud for the gathering . . .
Unlike Deva and Pete, I've moved away from the fields of math and science, but your influence on me might be even more direct because I worked for you as a chainman on your land-surveying team that summer of 1976, just after my freshman year at Baylor, back when I was only nineteen years old and thought I knew everything. I especially recall one conversation that you, Denny Wilkins, and I had. We were eating lunch in May's Café and discussing values and life's meaning, and you asked me what I wanted from life.
I reflected for a moment, then answered, "Peace of mind."
You retorted, "You can have that with a cup of coffee!"
At the time, I thought you were making a joke at my expense -- and I don't doubt that you were, because Denny laughed -- but with the passage of time, I came to see that you were also utterly serious . . . and that you were right. With a cup of coffee, you really can have peace of mind.
And with a great cup of coffee, you can even have peace on earth! (If only I could get Deva to test this theory in Syria . . .)
Another conversation I recall was from high school, though you and I were out on some unlikely pretext in your old pickup truck that bore the poetic warning, "Smoking is dangerous to your health and wealth." We briefly discussed that reminder of mortality and penury -- which you’d written when you'd given up smoking, but which remained there to plague you when you again took up the habit -- then we moved to other topics. You talked about mathematics and remarked that you probably should have instead pursued a higher degree in molecular biology or somesuch because the ground in mathematics had been fairly well tamped down already, so there wasn't much left to accomplish. I took your words to mean that if you couldn't do something fundamental in a field, then you just weren't interested.
Well, perhaps you didn't find anything fundamental to do in math, but you've accomplished a lot through the influence you've had on your many grateful students. We learned rigor and discipline under your tutelage, but also the importance of humor, creativity, and critical thinking.
And those are all fundamental to a proper education.
I began this letter to you by suggesting that "your influence on me might be even more direct" than your influence on Pete and Deva, but supposing that this is not the case, your influence on me has at least been more far-reaching, because I've gone halfway around the world in my career, and we know from geometry -- literally, "earth-measure" -- that one can't, without a great increase in acceleration (you do the math), get any further from Salem than that!
So if you ever feel you ought to have made a bigger mark in the world, just remember that your mark is still being made in many places, including not only Colorado and The Netherlands, but also even Korea.
Your Eternal Student,