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Friday, April 27, 2007

Dear Dr. Willey

Please excuse this errant correspondent. This letter is long overdue. So long overdue, in fact, that your eyes have long since grown dark. You are far beyond the reach of this, or any, letter...far beyond my words, my gratitude. I should have thanked you decades ago.
I should have thanked you in person, wrapped my arms around you, and expressed my gratitude with the heartfelt fervor you so richly earned and deserved.

Forgive me…I was so young, then. Too young to understand the effect you would have on me. Too absorbed in the dramas of adolescence to comprehend what you did to me…how you transformed me. Too vacuous and fatuous to appreciate just how much you meant to me.

What I’ve come to know is this: you, of all my teachers, are the
only one I vividly remember. There were others, to be sure, who illuminated my heart and soul; I revere them all. Your name is the only one that I remember, though. Your teachings stood the test of time; your lessons resonate within me still.

We affectionately named you “Wolfman” in honor of your unruly white hair and scraggly beard. Perhaps you’ll smile knowing that I’ve since come to resemble you. My hair has grown long and gray. My mustache is white and bushy, too. I tend to walk the earth with a similar, absent-minded air. You made me so.

Your greatest gift to me? You blessed me with new eyes.

You gave me vision.

* * *



My pen is poised above my notebook. A slide of a multi-cellular invertebrate (a rotifer, I believe) fills the wall-sized screen in front of me. I wait to jot the species, genus, phylum…to note this creature’s place on the taxonomic scale. I wait. Silence. And then I hear:

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

And so it always was with you. Oh sure, you taught me invertebrate zoology and taxonomy. You taught me well. But you taught me so much more. So much more. You opened my eyes to the beauty and mystery of all life. You were a poet/philosopher first, a distinguished entomologist/professor second.

You left me pondering the soul of the ant -
a creation encased in a suit of armor, with a brain orders of magnitude more efficient than my own. And, as it is with any knight whose true face is hidden behind steel or keratin, you asked me to contemplate what dreams may shimmer behind the mask.

And to this day, I ponder.

You introduced me to the mysteries of the species of mite that feeds on pools of oil miles inside the earth…and the life forms found within the frigid Arctic ice.

You presented me with the mind-blowing postulate that, if all insects were to fall dead to the ground at once, they would form a layer one-foot thick over this verdant planet of ours.

You marveled at the innate genius of the playful octopods. You left me marveling, too.

Of all the creatures you loved so passionately, you loved dragonflies the most. We, your students, chuckled at the vision of a mad scientist lying on his belly in a flowered field, finger poised on the trigger of an ultra-high speed camera. You spent hours, weeks, months and years, trying to capture the flight of the dragonfly on film. Oh sure, we understood the ostensible rationale…that there were scientific and engineering benefits to be gleaned by understanding the mechanics of four-winged flight systems. But we knew better…

You had fallen in love with dragonflies.

You unveiled the breadth and majesty of life to me, and left me with the phrase and the grandeur of “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” to enchant and inspire me to this very day.

* * *

Oh, Doctor Willey! I loved you then. I love you FAR more now.

I have no idea where poet entomologists go when their time here on earth is done. I bet I’ll find you someday, though…

I’ll simply follow the dragonflies...


* * *

23 Comments:

Blogger deb said...

I had a teacher like that as well. He was my English teacher, Mr. Meeres. He understand what I wrote and what I didn't write.

I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Willey for turning into a philsopher.

Fri Apr 27, 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger deb said...

Understood, what I wrote. I really should check for spelling before I hit publish.

Fri Apr 27, 02:53:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Amazing, isn't it, the profound effect and influence a teacher may have? Poor is the child bereft of even one.

Fri Apr 27, 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger Sunny Delight said...

Jon,
What a beautiful, heartfelt tribute to the man, and teacher. It sounds as if you were truly blessed to have such a man in your young life, and in your memories now.

Fri Apr 27, 04:48:00 PM  
Blogger Snowflake said...

As a teacher, it always amazes me when I read these stories. I feel very humbled. I am a competent teacher but not inspirational and it always uplifts me when I read these. Thanks for sharing Jonas.

Fri Apr 27, 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger Snowflake said...

how strange, blogger have changed my name from Snowqueen to Snowflake...how peculiar!!!!!

Fri Apr 27, 05:10:00 PM  
Blogger deb said...

I also meant to say I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Willey for turning YOU into a philosopher. I'm so tired today, I'm having a hard time thinking straight:)

Fri Apr 27, 06:34:00 PM  
Blogger anna said...

There were a few teachers who moved me - all for various reasons and in their own special ways. I wish all teachers understood just how much of an impact they could have on a person's life. They can be much more powerful than most of them realize and they should use that power wisely and with care.

Fri Apr 27, 07:57:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Yes, Sunny, I have been most blessed by teachers, family, friends and loves...most blessed.

Fri Apr 27, 08:21:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Your Highness, do not fret, a snowflake is every bit as wondrous.

Am I to surmise that you will blog whilst serving in Indonesia? I hope so.

* * *

No worries, Deb, I know you're a tired mummy. Mr. Meeres would smile, knowing that I, too, understood what you did not write.

* * *

I will remember your words, Anna, when I begin my teaching career...

Fri Apr 27, 08:28:00 PM  
Blogger Sally-Sal said...

"You blessed me with new eyes"

That is one of the most beautiful lines I've ever read. So true.

Thank you, Jonas.

Fri Apr 27, 09:03:00 PM  
Blogger Snowqueen said...

Jonas, The Snowflake was actually my fault!!! not blogger...woops! Sometime ago I changed my login name, forgot about it, and then because blogger changed their interfacing, it did not recognise my original one until I changed it back! As for blogging when I get to Indonesia, I am thinking about it. That is how snowflake came about actuall. I set up a blog called Snowflake in Indonesia but have not yet decided if I will do it. To be honest, I am not very good at committing to blog-keeping. But moving to a new place may entice me to startagain. I will let you know in August when I get there and settled!

Sat Apr 28, 06:51:00 AM  
Blogger Twilight said...

Beautiful memories, Jonas, and so beautifully told!

I've seen several movies about what I term "mythical, magical teachers". I was unlucky enough never to have one of those teachers, so to me they seem "mythical". It's good to read of this real life example, and see the magic he wrought in you.

Sat Apr 28, 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger anna said...

You're going to be a teacher?! That's wonderful! I have no doubt that you will be an AMAZING teacher. Oh how I wish I could be your student. On second thought, nevermind that... I'd end up with a schoolgirl crush on you and end up neglecting all my other classes.

Sat Apr 28, 11:27:00 AM  
Blogger Jonas said...

I certainly hope you write about your experiences in Indonesia, your Majesty. Plunging oneself into a new culture constitutes one of life's most fascinating adventures. Please share.

* * *

Ah, Ms. Twilight, I'm an absolute sucker for "mythical, magical teacher" stories. There are many. I try to see (and absorb) them all. They inspire me.

* * *

Yes, Anna, I've resolved to spend my remaining years teaching. Although I'll be starting late, it has always been an impulse deep within me. It'll take me a few years to get "credentialed" and then...well...I'll let Destiny determine where, what and whom.

Sat Apr 28, 11:36:00 AM  
Blogger deb said...

I think you'll be the kind of teacher that changes how kids feel about school, the kind that they write about later in life:)

Good luck. Now if I could just figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Sun Apr 29, 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger Laurie Anne said...

Jonas, well done, once again. To credit, to ponder, to thank those who have left bits of themselves in us--is a beautific thought on this sunny Sunday day for me. As I Zen-out while I paint my kitchen a bright spring lemon-yellow, I will ponder on those who's voices I still here, still seek.

Sun Apr 29, 02:36:00 PM  
Blogger Green-Eyed Girl said...

I'd like to thank the good doctor, too, for his part in teaching/molding you. What a pleasure to read you, no matter the subject.

Sun Apr 29, 11:20:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Oh my, Deb! Thank you for that vote of confidence! I see I have a great many high expectations to satisy. I will do my best.

* * *

Thank you, Laurie. I smiled thinking of you painting your kitchen, Zen-style. Another "karate kid" in the making?

* * *

Thank you, Ms. Green-Eyes. You made me blush.

Mon Apr 30, 09:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Roads said...

I love that concept of all the insects on the Earth being many enough to make a blanket one foot thick.

Now there's a thought for me to take with me on my train to London this sunny May morning.

So you're going to be a teachern then - well, congratulations.

There's a very good recent play by Alan Bennett called The History Boys, which I saw at the National Theatre a year or so ago and which offers some fascinating thoughts on the different styles and strengths of effective teaching.

The movie of that show was released last year - and whilst apparently only partially successful in translating the full flavour of the narrative to the big screen, is still an interesting adaptation which you might enjoy.

The story centres around a group of boys and their two different mentors. The older teacher, Hector (played superbly by Richard Griffiths) shares something of his love of poetry and French with his pupils, entrancing them with his enthusiasm for the sheer magic of learning, often conveying knowledge in exciting and daringly unconventional ways.

By contrast, Hector's younger colleague is sharper, more dynamic and demandinglyanalytical, challenging the kids to think further than the question. He encourages them to experiment with developing their own opinions and arguments, and thereby to become deductive but ultimately independent thinkers.

Each of the teachers, and each of their methods, has strengths and weaknesses.

This is the key theme, and it is drawn into focus alongside the counterpoints of another more conventional but ultimately less-inspiring teacher (Frances de la Tour), and a soullessly ambitious headmaster.

The latter is skilfully revealed as a cringingly soulless automaton, interested in the boys and their teachers neither as individuals, nor even as functional elements within his school, but as a simple results-generating machine which exists purely for his own gratification and glorification.

It's a very British kind of story, but as an exploration of educating bright enquiring minds, it offers some intriguing insights which you would certainly enjoy.

I'm sure that you might be able to find the DVD through Amazon in the US.

Tue May 01, 03:11:00 AM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Ah, Roads, thank you for your film recommendation. Sounds like it's right up my alley! I will seek it out. Thanks for stopping by!

Tue May 01, 09:13:00 AM  
Blogger Snowqueen said...

Well Jonas, I decided to keep a blog about my move and life in Indonesia. You are the first to know!

http://snowqueeninindonesia.blogspot.com/

Tue May 01, 03:04:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

I'm thrilled for you, Your Highness. Absolutely thrilled!

Tue May 01, 03:35:00 PM  

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