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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A day late and a 'thank you' short

I've been wanting to share this story for some time now... if for no other reason than to remind others that they needn't experience the kind of regret that I carry around with me every single day.

I've mentioned on many occasions that I was never a very good student.  Alright... I was a disaster of a student.  In fact, using the term 'student' to describe me is only appropriate in the sense that I was physically present in a classroom for a set number of years.

However, I somehow managed to get a dazzling score on my SATs, graduate from high school, and even earn a BA in English Lit.  That 'somehow' had a name: Mr. David Patterson... and I can say without hesitation that most of what I know today about a dizzying range of subjects, I learned from this incredible man.

Between 3rd and 4th grade my family moved from New Paltz ,New York to San Diego, California.

When we arrived there I was evaluated by the new school system, given a battery of tests (including an IQ test), and based entirely on the results I was assigned to a 'gifted' program at a nearby elementary school. 

The 'gifted ' program was full of Über-smart kids, and taught by some of the most imaginative teachers on the planet. 

My 4th grade teacher was an intimidating, giant of a man named David Patterson.  He was a retired Marine with the requisite crew cut, burned/creased leatherneck, ramrod-straight posture and a deep, gravelly smoker's voice. 

Mr. Patterson didn't walk... he marched in regal, perfectly measured strides.  His voice carried across the playground much as I'm sure it had once carried across parade grounds and battlefields.  He was larger than life and a terrifying presence for an inveterate slacker like myself.  However, I quickly found that Mr. Patterson's craggy, imposing exterior camouflaged a gentle, intensely thoughtful teacher. 

This isn't to say he was a softy.  Oh my no! 

I remember on one occasion when a black girl in our class came back from recess crying about someone having made a racial slur, Mr. Patterson stood us at attention and harangued us like new recruits for nearly 30 minutes.  It was a terrifying ordeal to say the least, and I never experienced anything like it again... even while I attended boot camp in the navy!

One day Mr. Patterson handed each of us a protractor, a length of string and a lead fishing weight.  He didn't explain what we were going to do.  He simply told us to tie the string onto the tiny hole in the middle of the protractor and the weight onto the end of the string.

From there we were led out on to the enormous playground/ball field that surrounded the school on two sides and told that we were going to play a game called 'Angles and Elevations'

He placed us in a big circle in the middle of the field and let us take turns standing in the center, holding the protractor flat against our chins with the curved side away from us, measuring the number of degrees between specific classmates around us. 

This, he explained, was how the angles portion of the game worked.

After we had mastered this fairly straight-forward skill, he told us to hold the protractors upside-down and let the string hang down over the curved portion with the numbers.  He ordered (Mr. Patterson never requested) one of the more agile kids in the class to climb up onto one of the baseball backstops and then told us to look at this kid's nose from along the bottom (which was now the top) edge of our protractors. 

Once we all had this student's nose sitting on the top edge of out protractors he shouted "Now trap the string against the side of the protractor!"  Those of us who didn't drop our protractors out of shock did as he had ordered.

He then went from student to student and asked us to tell him the number on the protractor over which the strong was trapped. The numbers varied widely and we were sure we'd completely screwed up when he bellowed, "Excellent! That's the elevation part of the game! Now can anyone tell me why you all got different elevations?"

We stood in dumb silence for nearly five minutes before one of the kids realized that it was because we were all standing different distances from the backstop when we took our elevation measurement. 

I thought Mr. Patterson was going to explode from pride that we had all caught onto the basics of this 'game' so quickly, but he wasn't finished yet.

He then used marks in the sandy playing surface to show how we each had very similarly spaced strides, and that once we knew the length of these strides (it turned out to be 3 strides = 2 yards), we could accurately measure any distance that we could walk.  He also taught us how to do triangulation (although he didn't use that word) to figure out missing measurements such as height.

From there he handed out pads of graph paper and pencils, explained that each little square was two yards, and had us write down the angles, elevations and distance to various other landmarks within view.  By the end of the day we were standing in large complex shapes and accurately drawing pictures of them. 

The last thing we did was collect all the angles and elevations for the perimeter of the playground and drew a scale picture of it on our graph paper.  We were amazed to find that everyone had drawn the exact same picture of the playground... right down to the height of the chain-link fence!

The next day we came to school ready for more fun and games... and we weren't disappointed.

Mr Patterson divided us into two-man teams and each pair was assigned a specific street near the school.  We were told to measure the angles, elevations and distances of every feature we could find including the length and width of the street, the elevation of any hills and the exact location and angle of any intersecting streets.  He told us that we should take our measurements by having one team member stand at each end of whatever was being measured, site in on each-other's nose... and for each of us to compare our numbers with the other to make sure they agreed.

When we returned to the classroom after lunchtime we were surprised to find that all the desks and chairs had been moved outside and that the entire floor was covered with butcher paper with a graph-paper grid penciled over it's entire surface.

Mr. Patterson explained to us that we would spend the afternoon transferring our angles, elevations and distances onto the butcher paper just the way we had transferred the measurements of the playground to our graph paper pads the previous day. 

As the end of the school-day drew near, a map of the neighborhood began to emerge on the floor of our classroom.  Thirty minutes before the final bell a man entered the room carrying a large rolled piece of paper under his arm and was introduced to us as a surveyor who worked for the City of San Diego.  The rolled paper under his arm, he explained, was the official city map with distances and elevations, for our neighborhood that men in his department had prepared.

We sat quietly in the corners of the room watching the city surveyor move industriously over our map making comparisons to reference points on his own map.  For almost 20 minutes nobody spoke, and the only sound was the scratch of his pencil as he marked off reference points and made barely audible comments to himself.

Ten minutes before the final bell the city surveyor rolled up his map with a professional flourish and for the first time looked around at the students.  I will never forget what he said, or how his words made me feel, for as long as I live:

"I couldn't have done a better or more accurate job myself.  I'd have no problem signing my name to this map and publishing it tomorrow.  It is perfect!"

He then went on to say how proud we must feel to have mastered geometry and trigonometry at such an early age.  We stared at each other dumb-struck as he droned on with other unfamiliar words like sine, cosine and tangent, and silently wondered what the heck he was talking about.  We didn't know any of that stuff... we'd just learned a game called 'angles and elevations'.

I never did learn the proper geometry or trigonometry terms (or the concepts they described).  But those two days in the fourth grade gave me the confidence to use common sense and non-traditional methods to solve many of the mathematical problems life would hand me.

This game I've described was just one of dozens he taught us that encompassed subjects like chemistry, music, language, art, architecture and even physics.  The secret was that he never used the scary names and terminology that would have brought the shutters crashing down in many of our young minds.

Like most self-absorbed kids, it wasn't until years later that I realized what I debt I owed to Mr. Patterson.  If I had to sum up Mr. Patterson's contribution to my life, I'd have to say that he taught me the essentials of improvisation, and not to be afraid to take on an unknown challenge using my small arsenal of known skills.

I thought several times during my last year of university about getting in touch with him and telling him how much he had helped prepare me for life's myriad formal and ad-hoc problems... but I never seemed to get around to doing it.

A couple of years after graduation while moving into a new apartment I found myself with a pad of graph paper in my hand, figuring out if some new (actually hand-me-down) furniture was going to fit.  I didn't know the formulas or names for any of the disciplines one would use to solve such a problem, but I knew instinctively how to do it.  After all... I'd done it countless times on a sandy playground in 4th grade.

It was then that I decided to get in touch with Mr. Patterson to finally thank him for all his help.

Unfortunately he had long since retired from teaching and Patterson is a very common name.  So I sent a very long thank-you letter to him in care of the San Diego City School System with the request that they forward it to him at whatever address he received his pension payments.

Almost two months went by before I got a reply.  I knew it was from him because the letter had a southern California return address and was written in a firm, strong hand.

But when I opened it up I found I was wrong.  It was from his daughter.

She was writing to tell me that her father had passed away just the year before and that the city schools had forwarded the letter to her.  She had read my letter and was delighted to hear that her father had touched my life so profoundly.  She also enthusiastically concurred with my assessment that her father had been a very special man.

I've shared this story with you because I often find myself improvising my way through a difficult problem only to be struck by waves of remorse for having needlessly procrastinated thanking the person who had taught me so many of life's essential skills.

If there is someone (or perhaps several someones) like this in your past, please stop what you're doing and find a way to thank them.  Google them... email them... write them a letter... call them on the phone... do whatever it takes to track them down.

But whatever you do, don't go through the rest of your life feeling a day late and a thank you short.


Posted by David Bogner on February 22, 2006 | Permalink


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What a wonderful story... but, in a way, I feel sad.

I'm sad you did not have a chance to reconnect with Mr. Patterson personally.

For the past 3 years I've had an ongoing correspondence with an old teacher of mine... a high school English teacher... who had touched my life in a way he'd have never known or even guessed.

A Christian graduate of Brandeis, he introduced me (us) to the works of Chaim Potok ... The novels struck a familiar and comfortable chord with me, and at an age when most Jewish boys I knew were giving up on their Jewish studies, mine were just beginning. Mr. Honeywell never knew, at least not until recently.

It's been beautiful to regain and keep contact with him almost 30 years later. I'm sorry you've missed that... but, in a way, reaching his daughter may have been even better. I loved the story, and I'm sure your children are benefiting from his teaching too.

Posted by: Ocean Guy | Feb 22, 2006 4:18:59 PM

I agree with Ocean Guy - - too bad you couldn't have reconnected with Mr Patterson, but thanks for sharing with us.

Posted by: Val | Feb 22, 2006 4:22:38 PM

This was a really wonderful story. I wonder how many readers are googling names of people today?? Thank you for sharing. It's good to get a nudge every once in a while to do a very worthwhile thing that is all too often "back burnered"---I suspect that in many ways your thanks came right on time and were more than adequate for the recipient, who in this case turned out to be Mr. Patterson's daughter. Had I received that letter about my father, I would have been grateful and very touched.

Posted by: nrg | Feb 22, 2006 4:23:15 PM


Nice story. We should all have a teacher like Mr. Patterson.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 22, 2006 4:26:46 PM

Hey David: Beautiful story and very important message. My mother, the amazing sage that she is, always taught me to say goodbye and thank you whenever I would leave the company of a person I cared about. I've been conditioned since I was about 10 when I wasn't able to truly day goodbye to my grandmother before she passed away. I was wrecked. The one time I didn't follow my mother's directions. So from then on, it's "Goodbye and thank you." It may sound like something a newsanchor says, but life throws so many different curve-balls at you, does it really matter what the words sound like? :)

Posted by: Shayna | Feb 22, 2006 5:31:07 PM

There really isn't anything to compare to a good teacher.

Posted by: westbankmama | Feb 22, 2006 5:39:15 PM

Ocean Guy... It made my day to hear that you'd succeeded where I'd let an opportunity slip through my fingers. It's such an easy thing to say thank you... but it has to be said in time.

Val... Thanks for slogging through it.

nrg... Thanks, I really hope you're right and that a lot of people end up 'reaching out' as a result of this post. But even one would make it all worthwhile.

Jack... I think pretty much everyone does/has. The trick is recognising our good fortune and acknowledging it.

Shayna... Wise woman, your mother.

Westbankmama... and a good friend. Sorry, I was having a Pirkei Avot moment there. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 22, 2006 5:58:31 PM

Teachers are an amazing influence; both the good ones and the horrible ones. What inspired you to write about this topic today?

Posted by: Ezer Knegdo | Feb 22, 2006 7:58:31 PM

Wow, what an amazing teacher. Teachers like that are, unfortunately, few and far between. I hope this story also inspires those who are teachers to think about the power they wield in terms of influencing a child so profoundly.

Posted by: Essie | Feb 22, 2006 8:13:45 PM

thanks. yesterday I read the evaluations my students wrote last semester and, of course, the one mean, miserable, nasty critique was what I absorbed. I think I should probably go back today and read the others. There were some folks who learned something about liking reading and writing (my secret goal...).

you remind to listen to those folks saying thank you!

Posted by: timna | Feb 22, 2006 8:29:08 PM

Mine was Ms. Acres, my 4th grade teacher. I will never forget her.

My husband is one who teaches "out of the box" and definitely leaves a wonderful, positive impression on both his kids and the parents. He geniunely always seems so shocked when he gets all this great feedback from his former students/parents. What's really sweet and a great compliment to his teaching, is that no matter what school he has taught, he has had parents make special requests years of ahead of time to have their children place in his class. Not that the principal will really allow that, but it doesn't stop the parents from asking.

Posted by: jaime | Feb 22, 2006 8:51:31 PM

What a beautiful story.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the "Angles and Elevations" game - I'd love to try that! (Sorry, I was a math kid...)

There should be more teachers like that.

Posted by: Ezzie | Feb 22, 2006 8:58:47 PM

That's absolutely awesome! I wish I had math teachers like that... then I'd never have grown to detest the subject the way I do now. But I did have really creative, wonderful teachers in other respects... and indeed I owe them a thank you. I think I'll seek them out. Thanks.

Posted by: Irina | Feb 22, 2006 9:21:34 PM

Beautiful , David. Many times I have had the misfortune of realizing only too late about the special-ness of someone in my life... missed opportunities are so difficult. They stay with you for a long time. I have resolved from now on to be grateful in the present tense. Thanks so much for the reminder...

Posted by: Regina Clare Jane | Feb 22, 2006 9:34:04 PM

Ezer Knegdo... I'm never sure. Whatever is bouncing around in my head when I sit down at the computer is what you get to see. I guess I've been feeling extra guilty lately about not saying thank you in time.

Essie... That would be a fantastic result.

TImna... I'm sure it's human nature to only hear the bad stuff. Having met you I'm sure there are plenty of good reviews in there... go back and check. :-)

Jaime... You are a lucky girl. Most people only get your husband for a year. :-)

Ezzie... That was one of the reason I included the game at the risk of boring a lot of people. I was hoping some people might try it out with their kids/students.

Irina... If this post put you in touch with one of your teachers it would make my day!

Regina Clare Jane... Happy to help. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 22, 2006 10:29:16 PM

*smiles* 'Angles and Elevations' reminded me of some math games that I played when I was younger, though not in school. When I was young (uh... 6-8 or 9, I think), my father played a bunch of conceptual math games with me that helped form some of the bedrock of my understanding of how numbers and variables worked together. Stuff like the 'function game', laying the groundwork for algebra, or discussions of rates of change (eventually getting to derivatives, though not in so many words) and graphing concepts. I vividly remember one bit where he taught me the essential aspects of field theory and 3D geometry using a fictional buttergun and bread. IMHO, though nomenclature and rigorous approaches to disciplines are always useful, it is often critical to first learn a conceptual understanding of the material. 'Playing' with children is one of the best ways to demonstrate this. Sounds like Mr. Patterson had it down pat, eh?

Fun story!

Posted by: matlabfreak | Feb 23, 2006 12:34:53 AM

Oh Happy Happy, Joy Joy

Posted by: jaime | Feb 23, 2006 12:55:36 AM

Whatever is bouncing around in my head

Am I allowed to comment on that. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Feb 23, 2006 1:55:24 AM

This is a fantastic story. I wish I had a teacher like that in school.

Posted by: Yury | Feb 23, 2006 3:14:44 AM

Touching...eloquently written.
I try to express my gratitude towards those who have such impact on me. It's not always easy, for whatever reason, but it's incredibly important. Just like telling people you love them- always important.

Posted by: tnspr569 | Feb 23, 2006 6:00:23 AM

What an awesome post! I have a degree in math, so I love hearing about teachers who provide practical applications.

Please know that there is nothing scary or daunting about sine, cosine, tangent, cotangent, secant or cosecant. Trig identities are beautiful.

How sad that your letter missed Mr. Patterson, but I can imagine opening a letter like that about my father and I am sure his daughter will never forget it.

Posted by: Stacey | Feb 23, 2006 7:59:17 AM

Math was not my forte - although I might have enjoyed it more, had I had a teacher such as Mr. Patterson. Perhaps my kids will be so lucky!

Posted by: Ezer Knegdo | Feb 23, 2006 8:22:08 AM

Wonderful, just wonderful.

Posted by: Seattle | Feb 23, 2006 8:38:24 AM

ok, first, thank you Trep! Yesterday afternoon, I googled a woman that I haven't talked to since 1991. We were students together in Denmark in 1989(junior year abroad) and lost touch after graduation. We shared a great deal that year, she was the person who knew my then boyfriend of 2 months, now husband of 10 years better than anyone and it was a time of my life that was important and pivotal and resulted in an eventual move to Scandinavia... anyway.... I found her in 10 minutes. Can you believe it. And got the name of her employer in Boston, called the main reception number and was talking to her within 15 minutes of my decision to find her. She was shocked and happy and we've exchanged 10 emails since yesterday with photos of our kids, stories of people we've kept in touch with. It was an amazing experience and you were the catalyst. So, thank you very much!!!

Posted by: nrg | Feb 23, 2006 10:44:04 AM

My own personal list includes:

- two assimilated Jewish teachers who seemed tickled pink to discover committed young Yeshiva guys in their attempts to supplement their public school incomes - and opened up worlds of literature and cross-cultural studies.

- an Orthodox Jewish art teacher who was a walking assertion of possibility that nobody else was talking about (just be doctor, lawyer, or accountant...)

- a former nun who taught algebra and pre-calc - and as much about rigorous thought as our Talmud teacher.

I only know where one of them is today...

Posted by: Ben-David | Feb 23, 2006 4:27:44 PM

... so you studied liberal arts, eh?

That explains a lot :-)

Posted by: Ben-David | Feb 23, 2006 4:28:47 PM

Amazing story. I'm wracking my brain for a person who has made that much of a positive impact on my life. Nadda. I'll google moviestars instead (?) I guess there is still some time (?)

Anyway, how does a kid who is not a good student survive in a school for gifted? Don't you have to maintain a certain grade level?

Posted by: Shevy | Feb 23, 2006 4:49:43 PM

Treppenwitz: you don't know me, but I often see your comments around on blogs, and have read here many times. (your wife commented on my shooting range escapades with Robert Avrech) My father was a 4th grade teacher...he died when I was 10 years old, but a few years ago I came to find that he had had that same kind of impact on one of his students (you can read my post in your spare time (haha) on Jan. 8th if you want...to understand it from the side of the daughter). Beautiful story...thank you on behalf of all the "daughter's of Mr. Patterson's".

Posted by: Randi(cruisin-mom) | Feb 23, 2006 5:32:30 PM

Matlabfreak... Glad you enjoyed reading it. Yes, Mr. Patterson had it down pat.

Jaime... thank thank you you.

Jack... No. :-)

Yury... I consider myself very lucky.

tnspr569... Make sure you do or you'll end up with regrets like mine.

Stacey... In the back of my mind I was hoping that you'd stop by and read this (being the math geek that you are). Yes, I'm sure it made his daughter's day... but teachers so rarely get to see the results of their labors, much less get a real thank you. I meant to write several times over the years... I just waited too long.

Ezer Knegdo... I'm hoping that my older son ends up with at least one Mr. Patterson as he is very much like his dad in the academics department.

Seattle... Thanks.

nrg... I am so glad you told me that. I love hearing about how something I have written has moved someone to do something. Thank YOU!

Ben-David... So get to work! And yes, I was a liberal arts major. It was that or drive a cab. :-)

Shevy... It was one of those open/experimental curriculum programs where typical school structure was thrown out the window. I still drafted (with my ADD and all), but I learned.

Randi... I do know you (mostly from the LA bloggers I follow). I went and read your beautiful tribute post to your dad. You are a wonderful writer and I'm sure he would be very proud of the adult/mother/wife you have grown up to be. And I love that you visit him in the mirror and not at his grave.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 26, 2006 12:08:59 AM

Thought you might appreciate...

I told this story to my FIL, who's a teacher similar to your own (only in HS). He loved it.

Posted by: Ezzie | Feb 26, 2006 5:47:16 AM

Thank you so much for this post. Very inspirational !!


Posted by: Sima | Feb 24, 2009 12:39:11 AM

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