In this multi-part series of blog posts, I’d like to tell the story of the O’Reilly School of Technology, which is also an opportunity for me to explain and justify our overall mission and plans.
Part I: My most important learning experience
I went to high school in south eastern Ohio. This area lies geographically in that region of the country called “Appalachia”. Wikipedia says this about Appalachia:
” Early 20th-century writers focused on sensationalistic aspects of the region’s culture, such as moonshining and clan feuding, and often portrayed the region’s inhabitants as uneducated…”
The community I lived in didn’t seem to place much of a premium on getting a good education. With all that moonshining and clan feuding, who has time for school? But it wasn’t just because they were drinking moonshine and clan feuding; it was more that in general the people there weren’t all that ambitious. They were generally accepting of their station in life, no matter what that may be. They were actually quite content, and as long as they had their family, friends, moonshine, and clan feuding they were happy to just sit on their porches and swap stories. In fact, highly educated people tended to be less popular and were regarded with a bit more suspicion than the more common and less educated blue collar workers that dominated the area.
Don’t get me wrong; it was a great place to grow up, but the school system I was in would not be confused with a bastion of academic prowess. Even so, and even among a student population in which only a few were intended to go to college, I managed to finish ranked a lowly 35th in a class of 80 in High School. I was mediocre student, at a mediocre school, in a mediocre region of the country.
The subject I was absolutely worst at was Math. In fact, in order to pass math, and even graduate from High School, I bet the particularly horrible Math teacher that I could take 3 whacks of a paddle to my back side in front of the class. If I won, I passed; if not, I failed. I won the bet, albeit with a lot of pain and embarrassment, but I passed Math, and I graduated from High School.
Without much else to do, I decided to give college a try. At that time, if you lived in Ohio and applied to Ohio State University, it was state law that they had to accept you. Given my high school grades, and the scores I had on the college entrance exams, that was the only hope I had to get into college. I had a rich great uncle offer to pay for it, so I off I went to college.
When I got to Ohio State, it was really like grade 13 to me. It was the same old path, but a different location. I was just going through the motions, and not doing it well. I was majoring in Geology at the time, but had always been more interested in Oceanography. However, the Math requirements intimidated me, and so I chose my major based more on the lack of math requirements than on genuine career interest (something I’ve seen all too often with college students).
Early on, I took my first math class – Algebra I. I failed it. The next term, I took it again, and somehow just managed to get a D.
The next math class I took, Algebra II, I failed. I took it again, and again got a D.
By time I finished my first year of college, and I had a .067 grade point average, and was on my way out. However, Ohio state had a program called “Freshman Forgiveness”, which allowed you to drop15 credit hours of classes that you had either failed, or had received a grade that you didn’t want to be seen on your transcripts.
By the end of my second year of college, I had used up the Freshman Forgiveness, and still had a terrible grade point average. Somehow, because of these forgiving policies at Ohio State, I was still in the game — but losing horribly.
By the beginning of my third year, I took my first calculus class. I can still remember the first day of this class like it was yesterday. The instructor was late. In fact, he was so late that the students in the class were discussing the rule for tardy instructors. No one knew the rule so we decided to stay a bit longer.
He finally arrived, and he did so magnificently. He sprinted in the room sliding up to the front desk. He was in 20’s, had black curly hair, and a full beard to match. He was disheveled, seemingly un-showered, and his clothes were completely wrinkled. Soon, someone in the class pointed out that his v-neck sweater was on backwards. He looked surprised, and took it off in order to put it on correctly. Once he got it off, it became apparent that he also had a white oxford shirt on backwards — and somehow it was buttoned-up.
Eventually, he got his clothes on correctly, and he started solving problems for the class on the chalk board. The board was filling up with chalk faster than I could write. Math symbols everywhere; it was a foreign language to me. As he was vigorously writing along, he suddenly stopped, stepped back slowly, put two fingers to his lips, and stared at the board. He was motionless and silent. The class stopped as well, put their pencils down and sat back. We were all looking at him, waiting for the next line of chalk, but he just stood there staring in uncomfortable silence for what seemed like 15 minutes. I couldn’t take the silence and suspense so I asked, “So, what’s up?” To which he said, “There is a mistake somewhere.” and he went back to staring and holding his fingers to lips.
The class got restless waiting for this guy to figure out the problem. However, he didn’t budge, he just stood there. Since I didn’t have anything better to do, and since I felt like helping him, I started looking at what he’d written. I went through each step, having to go back through several times, but to my surprise I actually found the mistake in this gigantic calculation. It was just a sign error. He had a minus sign where he should have had plus sign.
Sheepishly, I pointed out what I thought the problem was. He sighed, pointed at me, thanked me, and then continued.
That term, this scene repeated itself again and again. He kept making mistakes, and I’d correct them. It got to be so that when he’d step back into his perplexed ‘there’s a mistake’ look, the class would look over at me, and wait for the answer.
That term I got an “A” in Calculus. In fact, I got the highest score in the class.
Something amazing had happened to me. I became a mathematician, that suddenly, and that fast. Without any previous knowledge of mathematics, I learned to think like a mathematician, and it suddenly all made sense to me.
I took many more Math courses, and I got many more “A”s. I felt empowered, and I felt ownership, and even decided I wanted to know what the heck Einstein was so famous for doing. So, I took every course on Relativity available, until not only did I understand it, but could use it to make simple predictions and observations.
I went on to graduate school, pursued a Ph.D. in mathematics, and did research in Applied Mathematics, namely geometric classical mechanics and control theory.
In order to pay for graduate school, I had teaching assistantships in the math department, and taught college Math courses. I discovered that if I’ve ever been really good at something, it was teaching — and I fell in love with it.
(to be continued in Part 2…)