A few days ago, I was delighted to receive an e-mail from a former student. It’s always fun to catch up, and Tim was a student who I hadn’t seen in almost 30 years. He was in an AP calculus class I taught at International School Bangkok (ISB) in Thailand during the late 1970s. His e-mail was only three sentences long, but the last one gave me a good feeling: “I am very grateful for the spark of excitement you produced in me about math.”
It made my day.
Now I need to be honest. This was not an unsolicited e-mail. As a result of an unrelated Google search, I had serendipitously come upon Tim’s professional biography a few days earlier. When I read about his successful and varied career and a possible important promotion, I decided to search for his e-mail address and wish him my congratulations. An information desk e-mail address at his workplace was all I could find. So I sent my message off. My e-mail was first acknowledged by a secretary and then drew a response from Tim’s assistant, who asked me for a few verifying details. Luckily, I had a class photo that included Tim. The next day I got my response from Tim.
I hadn’t thought about Tim in years, but he was a memorable student in an excellent class. Tim was certainly prepared for calculus and did well from the very start. He made it clear, however, that history and government were his main interests. It was probably just important to have an A in calculus on his resume. He hoped to attend Dartmouth College.
As the year progressed, however, Tim’s interest grew and he became a major contributor to our class discussions. And he was such an incisive thinker and such an engaging speaker. In fact, near the end of the year, Tim commented that although history and government remained his main interests, he now saw the point of math. It wasn’t just about numbers and facts; it was about concepts and relationships, relationships within mathematics and relationships to other areas of human inquiry.
He still had no intention of going into science or engineering, but he certainly wouldn’t avoid economics or statistics in his future studies.
Since our exchange of e-mails, Tim got his promotion. He’ll be leaving his current position as the ninth president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and taking up his new duties as the 75th secretary of the treasury, subject, of course, to confirmation by the Senate. There he’ll need to call upon all of his skills and abilities, including that spark of excitement about math that I may have kindled 30 years ago.
I wish him every possible success; so does my IRA.
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