Dear Mr. Rice,
Physics. The word conjures up diverse reactions on the wonder-fear spectrum. Yes, I was fearful before starting your AP Physics class senior year of high school. I loved science, and there was no question that I would take your legendary course. But I secretly feared that when put to the test, I would reach my limit.
From the beginning, your teaching challenged and entranced me. So much that I kept notes in my planner: “Cool physics things to tell Dad.” I wanted the people I loved most to experience your captivating logic that revealed the universe’s mysterious order. Dad and I marveled over the list on the daily drive home from school. When he saw you teach first-hand on parent-teachers night, you astonished him with your ability to impart masses of complex information with simple clarity.
You made it clear that you cared to know your students as human beings, by asking us to write you letters describing our reasons for taking AP Physics, our passions outside of school, and our long-term goals. After expressing my desire to be a scientist and an astronaut I wrote, “I feel very positive. In fact, I think I can handle pretty much anything life throws at me.”
Life soon launched me an opportunity to test my presumptuous hypothesis. A few days later, my father died suddenly from a heart attack.
I was devastated. I hadn’t only lost my dad, I had lost my best friend. My steadfast, empathic supporter, a constant source of curious questions and unbridled delight in learning. In fact, I’m positive now that when I wrote, “I can handle pretty much anything life throws at me,” what I really meant was, “I can handle pretty much anything life throws at me and my Dad.”
It was as if without warning someone had lifted me from my comfortable seat in your class- the land of the logical- and placed me alone at the edge of a steep cliff, moments from shattering into a million little pieces. All I felt was gravity.
But then you taught me there is so much more to gravity than a fear of falling.
Let’s consider a two-object system: my pencil and the earth. The earth and my pencil are attracted to each other, so to lift my pencil, to separate it from the earth, I must add energy to the system. That energy is then stored in the field between the pencil and the earth; it is the gravitational potential difference between the pencil on the ground and in its new position. If I let go of my pencil, the potential energy stored in the field becomes kinetic energy, transforming into their mutual motion.
“It is not just the earth that pulls the pencil,” you elucidated, “but also the pencil that pulls the earth.” And so I learned that teetering on the edge of that cliff just moments from falling, I actually held the potential to move the world.
You continued, “And when would the system store its maximum potential energy? Its maximum ability to do work?”
“When the pencil and the earth are far apart,” I responded. “Maybe at the edge of earth’s atmosphere?” “Only that far?” you prodded.
And then I understood. The system holds its maximum potential energy when the pencil and the earth are infinitely far apart, when the pencil teeters precariously, separated far from the safety of earth, just as I felt unmoored, separated from my comfortable world. But only when we are infinitely separated from all we know do we hold our maximum potential difference, our maximum ability to do work, our maximum opportunity to move the world.
The strenuous but compassionate learning environment you created helped me to heal. Your unwavering expectations showed me stores of strength I didn’t know I had. You did bring me to my mental limit, but you taught me that that’s the whole point. Acquiring new knowledge, by definition, means you are at your limit, and only there can deep learning occur.
You gave me the precious gift that all great teachers give: the power to think for myself. And you taught me that power would only be multiplied if I worked over time.
I left your class so fortified that I enrolled in the notoriously difficult physics major at Princeton, where I worked on physics problems with peers from around the world, in awe that we shared common scientific truths across the planet. I tutored high school students from diverse backgrounds, and it became clear to me that while talent for science is universal, opportunity is not.
And so I joined the Peace Corps, where I teach physics to 670 seventh through tenth graders in a remote village in Guinea, West Africa. With no textbooks, experimental materials, running water, or electricity, all my students face hardships, but the girls are disproportionately disadvantaged by the challenges of extreme poverty. Cooking, cleaning, doing family laundry with a washboard, and getting water from the well, leaves them with less time to study than their male counterparts, and when they find the time they are exhausted. Furthermore, once puberty hits they become vulnerable to early marriage, which usually leads to pregnancy and the end of school.
So I try to give them the same gift you gave me during a vulnerable time in my life—the power to think for themselves. Of course no one can remove society’s limits for them in two short years of service. But I actually don’t think that’s our task—it’s theirs. I can however, impart the skills I learned from you.
I can reveal to them what they are capable of by creating a caring and rigorous learning space. I can demonstrate completely equal treatment of girls and boys in class. I can push the girls to respond to questions rather than sit passively, as is the norm. I can convince the parents of one of my smartest 7th graders that she should continue her studies even though they are marrying her off. I can confidently teach students the concepts you forever engrained in my mind to show the girls and the boys that yes, women can think about hard things. And hopefully illuminating the logic of the physical world around them will illuminate the illogic of the inequitable system they are in, and empower them with the tools they need to change it.
Mr. Rice, I don’t know how many people can honestly say they’d love to take their high school physics class again, but I would eagerly do so. And I suspect I’m not the only one. You left an indelible mark on every one of your students. We left feeling reasonable, cared for, and empowered.
At a political moment such as this, I can’t think of a nobler gift to society than arming young people with logic. Endowing them with the courage to jump into, rather than shy away from, complex problems. So on behalf of our nation, thank you for your 37 years of exceptional physics teaching. You’ve guided countless adolescents to stores of power they didn’t know they had. I am eternally grateful to consider myself one of them.
With sincerest gratitude, Lisa
Rex Rice is retiring after teaching physics in American public schools for 37 years. He also coached award winning teams for the Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering (WYSE) and Tests of Engineering Aptitude, Mathematics and Science (TEAMS) competitions. He is a pioneer of the “physics first” movement and has been active in the reform and improvement of physics education. He is a member of the American Association of Physics Teacher's Physics Master Teacher Leader Taskforce, and serves as President of the American Modeling Teachers Association.