A Letter to My Teacher

John Porter,

If you are not the John Porter who taught physics and geometry at Lee High School in the 1960s, please disregard. Otherwise, read on.

I found you through our 50th high school reunion website. I could not locate an email address for you so I had to guess that you and my high school teacher are one and the same. I have no idea if you even remember me, Dick Erdmann. I was a student or yours for both physics and geometry.

Today I own with a partner a small company that trains educators in K-12. Few days pass when I do not think of you as a teacher and for the past twenty years I doubt that I have had a client who has not heard at least one or two stories about you as a teacher. I have always wanted to say thank you but never knew where you went.

There are many similar aspects of my life since high school that I attribute to you. The first example is taking a philosophy course in college because of learning about Descartes and Spinoza in your geometry class. As I remember it, we finished the textbook early and you asked us to pick either Spinoza or Descartes and write a paper on their use of logic. I picked Spinoza. I have four books about Spinoza on my bookshelf and purchased one recently for a very long plane trip. I even have a couple on Descartes. If I broaden the topic to logic, I have probably three feet of books and even have graphic book on logic.

There is another shelf dedicated to physics and two of my favorite books are a biography of Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, by Bird and Sherwin, and the Second Creation by Crease and Mann. I use stories from both books when I work with teachers.

The best example and most direct I can give of your teaching, however, is a question from your final physics exam. My memory is that it was for extra credit, something I needed since I missed six weeks of my second semester in my senior year. It was whether or not a sail ship could be propelled through space by the sun’s light. The significance of the question for me relates to the name of the company I started in the 90s to see my way into retirement – Syfr.

Sifr is the Arabic word for zero and since no one would be likely to know that, so I invented the spelling. When I named the company, I wanted a story of intellectual transformation with many splinter stories and the adoption of the Hindu-Arabic numbering system proved a good candidate. So, I picked the number zero for the name because it gave me many, many splinter stories about how difficult change is. Your exam question relates to one – the concept of a void or vacuum and light.

All of this is to say you were a wonderful teacher and I have never forgotten your two classes. They continue to play a role in the reading I enjoy, the work I do, and make me appear far more knowledgeable than I am, particularly now that my memory is a bit selective and inventive.

Thanks for creating many interests and stories in my life.

Richard Erdmann

Leave a Reply