October 1, 2012

The physics of empathy

My fifteenth high school reunion is coming up next year. Not that I am thinking about it already, and not that I plan on going.


I was good at physics in high school. Our teacher was awesome. He knew his subject and did a great job teaching it to us; he was tough but fair, consistent and principled. I would like to say he was good enough to teach at university, but his temperament actually made him perfect for high school. He was where he needed to be.


We made fun of him because he was middle-aged and living with his mother, and the meanders of life were still a mystery to us. He pretty much looked like George Costanza, and in our arrogance of youth we also assumed he had no life beside the classroom and the bus he got on after school. We made fun of his English, because we had no concept of what it meant to be forty and try to teach in a second language; because we had no idea what it felt like to be overweight and stand in front of a mostly all-girls classroom. We were sixteen and full of ourselves because we went to one of the best schools in the country, and were handpicked, tested and interviewed for the advanced class that would have half their subjects taught in English. We were sixteen and "mistake" was not in our vocabulary. We had only ever been overachievers, and empathy was an ironic beast that we would learn to grant to others only after seeing our own selves fall. Somewhere down the line.


Whether he was in fact to be pitied or not, he certainly would not take shit from anyone, and he damn straight would not demean himself to be popular. There were one or two occasions in our senior year when we hung out having drinks with some of the teaching staff. Our young and goofy homeroom teacher was one of them, and so were the philosophy and Latin guys. We liked our physics teacher too, and perhaps we thought we were doing him a favor when we asked him to join us once. His ethics blew us all a raspberry when he gave us a curt and laughable “No way!”


I have no idea if his feelings were hurt when he read a note over my shoulder once, written by the girl sitting next to me in class, which said “What do you think of Mr. C as a man?” I made a disgusted face, the kind that only a sixteen-year-old girl can muster up, only to hear him growl behind my back. “I will have no such conversation in class, ladies.” I dare say that Mr. C had a crush on me. There is no salacious story to tell, I just knew. I was allowed to make comments that others were not. I was publicly scolded, but called aside after class to receive a blundered apology. There was a protective instinct that he had about me.


Mr. C would always rank our grades when he handed our tests back to us. He would call us to the blackboard one by one, in order of excellence. He had a great way of making it not personal, so that you did not feel bad if you fucked up, but there was a sense of accomplishment if your name was one of the last ones to be called out. I was the only one to get an A in our first test, and I was also the last one to have my name called out for the last test in our senior year. “You ought to think about studying physics,” he said to me. I went for English and Comp Lit instead.


But more than the quiet pride I still feel over these, there was one test that still sticks in my mind. There was a task that required calculating the time it would take for a vertical projectile to return to the ground. All the variables were there, but for the life of me I could not remember the formula. So I divided the motion into two trajectories – the vertical throw and the free fall – and did the math based on the formulas that I could remember.


I got another A. When taking my test back from Mr. C, I wanted to explain myself.


“I’m sorry, I could not remember the formula so I improvised.”


“And your method was correct, as were your results. That is why you got an A. But you sure did take the long way round. You shouldn’t overcomplicate things.”


Fast forward fifteen years.


Dear Mr. C, I have not changed one bit.


I still take the long way round.


I still make things more complicated than they need to be.


I still give myself a hard time, but I try to improvise, and sometimes I get the right results. Your protective instincts saw right through me, even if I would not admit it then.


But I have learned empathy. I have learned to fail, and to make mistakes. I am still learning self-forgiveness and letting go, but I trust that that one is just round the bend as well. I am sorry we underestimated you, unthinking little jackasses that we were. I hope that you are still a man of integrity, and I hope your work is valued. I also hope, for your own sake, that you finally got a place of your own.


  1. Interesting how our perspective changes as we get older and come to appreciate basic, life stuff differently.

    I think we become better human beings when we can sift back through the past, identify a situation or person like Mr C and come to accept responsibility for our immaturity and poor behavior as you have done here.

    This my friend, at least in my experience is how one quires not just "smarts" or "growth" as a person but WISDOM. Most people would think, Ach...that was 15 years ago so what, I was a brat I'm different now. And often times they really aren't..by dissecting your behavior , looking at it and in a way reaching back through the mists of time to say...Mr C...I'm SORRY. It's called Character and Character building, we should never take it for granted because it is getting increasingly rarer as time goes by.

    You are a bright, gifted writer and human being C but more importantly...you are a person of integrity...

    On a closing note, let's not jump to conclusions about adults who find themselves living back by their parents.

    I moved here to the Island to take care of my parents 5 years ago when my dad was quite ill and didn't look like he was going to live. I was living in 2 places at once, 120 miles a part...they suggested I rent the upstairs rooms of their cottage and it's been fantastic...so things are not always what they seem.

    I suppose it's possible he is a 'loser',mama's boy who couldn't leave home but there may have been a perfectly logical explanations as well...give him the benefit of the doubt...hey?!

    Really good stuff C...really good!

    1. Thank you as always, T. I like long comments that make me think :)

      Just to be clear, people who live in their parents' houses should not throw stones - I am now, post-divorce, back living with my parents, so I know what I am talking about :) I also know that it would be better for me and my personal integrity if I had a place of my own (which is financially not feasible at the moment), hence my comment regarding Mr. C's situation.

      I recently read that what builds character is taking responsibility for your actions and what you do with your life. It struck me hard as I am struggling with some old, petty issues of my own, but I will have to face that challenge if I am to grow at all. There was nothing wrong with our physics teacher - he was a kind, hard-working human being who was obviously happy with his life, only our idea of happiness and success was blindingly immature.

      And I agree with you that we often think we have changed but in fact we haven't. I wish more people would admit to that. I am realizing that some things are thresholds in life, in the sense that you cross them and you never go back. Most other things, however, you are never really done with. Empathy is a thing to be reacquired on a daily basis, as is character, as is conquering one's fears or arrogance. They just seem to appear in different forms in one's lifetime.

      Thanks again for this, love it!

    2. I actually no problem with the comments about living back with one's parents. I pay more in monthly rent then I did in my last mortgage payment so I'm not really living at home, I'm a tenant...of course this is quite an upgrade in neighborhoods living on the island so I am oblivious to any negativity...I love it here!

      Plus I have gotten to know my parents in a pretty special way and have been able to really help them in their old age which is a privilege really.

    3. I think it's awesome that your situation has worked out so well for everybody. I'm just at a different place in my head, which is fine too, because we all have our individual paths to follow. On the other hand, I do feel privileged to have this extra time with my parents, especially since I've been moving about in the past few years. Who knows where I will end up next, so why not enjoy this...

    4. That's exactly the way to look at it I feel...I really try and accept life on it's on terms, particularly in situations like those. I know where you're coming from...I'll be 50 in 2 weeks and you are in your early 30's...still in the front half (by far) of your life's book. I know that if I lived by my parents when I was your age I would have felt humiliated...and it would have been ridiculous to feel that way but I was a rebel. I actually left home at age 16 so it would have been quite out of character for me to go home then....

    5. Exactly, you never know what's around the corner, and sometimes it isn't a good idea to fight the universe when it is trying to make life easier on you.

  2. Chris, I love this peek at the 16 year old you. You were gifted then and still are, only now your soul has aged and gleaned the sort of gifts that only failure can offer: empathy, humility, bravery. You're amazing my dear. You always have been and always will be. I love your writing, it matches your beautiful soul.

    I've been very out of sorts for sometime now. So much has been happening. I've made myself scarce.
    I loved the photos...such magic moments. When I catch up with myself I intend to catch up with you.

    Love and big hugs my friend.

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving some of your words here, Leah.

      I've noticed that you've made yourself scarce. I've been reading your blog but have found it very hard to decide what to say in a comment... So I'm just listening in and waiting for the right words to come to me. But I'm here.

      I've also made myself scarce to the world, internally. On the outside, everything is as it should be. On the inside, I am removed and agoraphobic, present only in a potential future.

      Thank you for the big hugs, I sure could use one. Take good care of yourself.

  3. Hi Chris,
    And as time went by, your perspective, your perceptions of Mr. C changed to a bit more understanding and you have learned about the gift that is empathy.
    I tell you what, I wish I could go back and live with my parents. My son is costing me a fortune!
    There you go, cause I'm screwed up from noisy neighbours below me, I shall now curtail this comment before I make a complete idiot of myself! :)
    Take care and have fun.

    1. LOL Gary,

      I hope my parents aren't saying the same thing to their anonymous bloggy friends! :P

      Thanks for all the positivity. Stay awesome.


  4. This brings back memories. Of all the teachers who tried to save me, and all the teachers I didn't give a shit about. Which were most of them. I really hated teachers. And even today, I am not sure why. They are like soldiers in that communities give them respect for the job they do without really knowing what that job is. It drives my husband crazy. I understand that teachers have a demanding job with little pay, that their job entails imparting education to young people who don't yet have the maturity to appreciate it. I understand that they give much of their free time and use their own money. I understand that they also have to deal with insane parents, the insane school board, a rigid curriculum and standardized testing that leave them jaded and uninspired. I get it. But after spending 12 years watching what happens when kids are raised without any kind of institutionalized schooling whatsoever, when learning is allowed to happen naturally, as a part of life, inspiration-driven, without tests or detention or lockers or bullshit, it really causes me to wonder what the point of it all is. It's the same with soldiers. Yeah, fine, they risk their lives and do jobs most people would never do, but what if it was all rendered pointless? What if we decided one day that we no longer needed physical force to get along with each other? Truth be told, we don't. Truth be told, considering what human beings are capable of, soldiers are pointless. Their necessity comes from humans who have no desire to reach their full potential. And I believe the necessity of institutionalized schooling is the same. I think Bernard-Shaw said once, "My schooling not only failed to teach me what it professed to be teaching, but prevented me from being educated to an extent which infuriates me when I think of all I might have learned at home by myself."

    Anyway. I went on a tangent, sorry. I hated math. Although, I was told I could get an A in algebra my 10th grade year if I would just sit on Coach Barron's lap after school. I wound up failing it twice. He was too ugly and old. Finally passed algebra and statistics in college before I decided math was from the devil.

    1. Yikes, where do I start with this one?

      Soldiers - on a good day, I sing "Sag mir wo die Blumen sind" and dream of a world where soldiers would become a thing of the past. On a realistic day, I know that time has not yet come, and I believe that you know much more about that than I ever will.

      As for teachers, I can't say that I dream of a world without them. I love them. I am one. I've had many of them that I call my intellectual mothers and sisters and aunts. I worked in education policy making for a couple of years, and I can agree with you that most people don't really understand the job of a teacher, but they sure as hell don't get nearly as much respect as they deserve. Perhaps what you hate about them is the way they were taught to teach, and not teaching per se? Because I've had those, too. Finland supposedly has a great educational model that works both for kids and teachers. I think you're one hell of a mother for homeschooling your kids, as that is something I don't think I would ever want to do myself. But not all parents are capable of that, and many countries do not even allow for a concept of education outside of the government-regulated classroom.

      In the past few decades, education has come to be seen as a basic human right (along with the right to life, safety, health etc.), which should thereby be made available to everyone regardless of their race, gender, faith or financial means. That minimum standard democratizes education to a degree hitherto unknown to humanity, but dwindling elitism also tends to lower the quality of education. And don't even get me started on the ever-increasing tendency to value education purely as a money-maker. How much money can we milk our students for, and how much will they earn after graduation...?

    2. That's the one thing I have never been able to resolve with my personal education ideal- the fact that our entire society as we know it would completely fall apart and thousands of years of ingenuity and innovation would regress to the point of illiteracy becoming the norm and the earth squashed flat all over again. No, I would go so far as to say the majority of parents could not and should not homeschool their children. Honestly, I have no idea what I would do with the school system if my ideas mattered. I have no idea how to educate hundreds of children at once while catering to their individual personalities. But the opposite of regression also holds true. If we ever found the magic formula that pairs mass-education with some real potentiation, it's exciting to imagine where the human race might be right now. I sometimes act like a "victim" of the educational system, I think. Which is a really bad stance to take. It makes me bitter. It was up to me to take advantage of what was being taught, and I was a teenager with better things to do. And from the other side of things now, I also know that no matter what ideals were met, I would have still been a pissy teenager who wanted nothing to do with it. I remember the teachers I hurt, like Mr. C. The other kids I bullied. The public education model broke me, I think. I just didn't belong there.

    3. I'd like to think that there already are people pairing mass education with individuation: they are self-motivated good teachers and parents, who, if they are lucky, sometimes happen to work in institutions/live in countries with a good support system.

      Again, there are two sides to this education business. One, the humanist: all people should have a (basic) education, and since not all families are capable of providing it (for various reasons), let us have an institution whose job it will be to do so. The other, the consequence of modern life: we don't need to do everything ourselves anymore, so we have others make our cars, our food, our furniture, do our taxes and write up our contracts, fix our bodies when they are broken and - teach our children.

      I sometimes act like a victim of my educational system too, and I include my parents and family in this. I look back on all the situations when my behavior or attitude ought to have been corrected but was not. I was bullied in middle school, but I also suppose my sharp tongue and quick brain bullied some kids back without me even being aware of it. Narrowmindedness, prejudice, lack of communication skills... things we are all exposed to and have to find our way around, that I somehow ended up having to peal away from my person by myself (work in progress). Couldn't someone have just told me and made it easier? :)


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