Thursday, September 26, 2013

Steve, PhD Candidate

I am celebrating my 20th year of teaching by profiling former students who are doing great things in their field. As I've watched them grow into adults, I have been impressed with an aspect of their lives and want to share them with you. I fully recognize that I was merely a small part in their growth and development, but I can't help to be proud. By highlighting these former students I hope to encourage other teachers that what we do is a noble and worthy cause. We have the ability to boost others to greatness we have never considered. 

I called him Stevie Wonder Sebastian.  It’s not like he played piano (sax, I think), sang, did funny dances with his head, or was visually impaired.  It was just the relationship we had. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a student whose brain was so in tune with mine in all my years and probably never will.

And I’m not talking about academics here.  

Somehow my humor and his humor clicked and he thought he could always be the funny guy (which was my job). Many times he would hoist his hand up in the air, and I could never tell if his hand was up for something serious or hilarious or off on a tangent so far off course that only I could see the thread from where he was and where he should be.

And I loved it!

Had you told me 15 years ago that Stephen would be my first ever student to go for his doctorate, I would have laughed.  It’s not that I doubted his abilities but because I didn’t know he’d take school that seriously.

After graduating from high school, Steve went to Purdue to study computer science.  He wanted to learn how things worked, and computers and software made perfect sense to him.  One day in class, a different professor came in to say they were looking for volunteers to help with research on eyes, and Steve hopped in. What would have happened if he skipped class that day? His life calling could still be waiting for him out there!

Steve is now in his fourth year of PhD studies at The University of Texas in the Vision Science and Perceptual Systems Department.  The stuff he’s learning is far above my pay grade, so I’m just going to let him tell you.

I study how humans and animals process visual information. More specifically, I’m interested in the lens system of the human eye. For example, when you move your eye to a new object, that object will most likely be out of focus (because it is likely at a different distance and your eye can only focus at one distance at a time). Your brain must detect that blur and change the power of your lens to bring the new object into focus. Not much is known about how your brain does this, and that is what I study. It turns out that the auto focusing mechanism of the brain is much more sensitive and complex than even the most sophisticated camera!

Steve counts it a privilege to get paid to study something he loves to learn about.  After finishing up his PhD, he eventually wants to become a research professor so he can continue to learn and teach others about how vision and brains work together.

After having had my wife in fifth grade, Stephen was pretty excited to have me as his sixth grade teacher.  As I said earlier, we got along great. In fact, he’s the only student I know of that had my picture up in his locker (and not to throw darts at). He remembers my class as being the first to incorporate technology.  I had a “computer line” on the whiteboard with every student’s name.  The students at the top of the line got to use a classroom computer for 10 or 15 minutes for something educational.  Then, he or she would get bumped to the bottom of the line again. It was a good system for a room with only one or two computers.

However, I, once again, win the “You Apologized to Me” Award.

I don’t remember exactly what the incident was, but once you must have been a little too annoyed with me (I don’t blame you, I was probably very difficult to deal with in a classroom setting when I was 11), and you said something that hurt my feelings. Later you took me aside and personally apologized to me. The idea that an adult/teacher/authority figure would apologize to me for something they did meant a lot to me. I don’t know if you remember it, but it really stuck with me all these years. Thank you for your patience with me. It’s because of you and teachers like you that I was able to actually learn something in school.

I’m glad I can be remembered for being a teacher who apologizes.  I think it’s an important thing for students to see -- a teacher can humble himself to admit when he’s wrong.  I just wish I didn’t have to apologize.  Was my temper really that bad?  I think we all reach that breaking point.  Students -- either by accident or on purpose -- push us to that limit where we say something we wish we didn’t say.  On the other hand, I’ve watched other teachers in action who dispel bad behavior in a nice, sweet, loving manner that says, “I love you like my own child, but you’d better never do that again.”  I think I’d like to be more like that.

Last fall, Steve paid me perhaps one of the greatest compliments a former student could pay me.  My wife and I  were at one of his former classmate’s wedding and sat down about halfway down the aisle.  Steve’s parents sat in the same row but with about a half dozen seats between us.  Steve stepped over his parents and came and plopped down next to me. It was great to catch up and learn about what he’s doing with his life.

I’m proud to have known and taught Stevie Wonder.  I’m thrilled to know that his bright mind will be helping others learn about how the brain helps our eyes to focus.  Who knows what improvements he and his students will bring to the world of eye care?

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