one of the advantages to growing up with three older sisters is having a built-in recommendation system for teachers. by the time i got to junior high (or what they now call middle school), my sisters would advise me on what to take with whom. when i was ready for high school, my sisters were unanimous about one thing: "no matter what, david, take any class that mr. aiello teaches."
for thirty-seven years, mr. aiello taught science at san luis obispo high school. among the courses he taught were chemistry (which i took as a sophomore in 1984) and physics (which i took the next year as a junior). but the main topic he taught was curiosity - to observe closely, to question constantly, and to be curious about the world around us.
he taught us curiosity, i think, by sharing with us his own. sometimes in class, a student would ask mr. aiello a question that would stump him. he'd stand in front of us - finger on his lips, eyes looking to the sky, silent - walk to his desk, write a note to himself, and say: "i don't know but i'll try to find out." a few days later, perhaps a week, we'd be back in class and he'd share with us the answer.
i'm not sure where mr. aiello got all of his answers but he certainly got some of them from nearby cal poly. i remember my father, at the time a professor of physics at cal poly, coming home and recounting stories about how he saw mr. aiello roaming the halls of the physics department, stopping by the offices of his friends, and, together, deriving plausible answers to share with students. mr. aiello had a thirst for knowledge that my dad revered and that my sisters and i admired and sought to emulate.
from slonow, an informal listserv that connects 1986 graduates of SLO high school, i learned that michael aiello is retiring this week. what a shame - it's difficult to find teachers like mr. aiello, especially in a state (california) and country that has done so much to devalue the occupation of teacher. but it's also well-deserved - for nearly four decades, he's taught physics, chemistry, and curiosity to thousands of young SLO minds.
by my senior year, i had taken all of mr. aiello's classes, but i still wanted more. i asked him if i could work with him on something, anything, for course credit or no credit. he thought for a while - finger on lips, eyes to the skies, silent - dashed into his back room of oddities, and returned with a big, technological thingy with dozens of knobs and switches.
"what's that?" i asked.
"a laser," he answered.
"how does it work?"
"i'm not sure."
my task was to figure out the functions of the thirty-something knobs and switches. mr. aiello had already identified two or three and labeled them with sticky tabs that read "brightness" and "focus." my job was to discover the function of the rest of the knobs. i took on the task with relish.
i worked hard, really hard, and even got dad involved. in the end, however, i was able to determine the function of only four or five knobs. i wasn't pleased with my progress, and when i reported back to mr. aiello, i told him that i discovered four of five functions and failed to figure out the rest.
"failed?" he responded, looking confused, "you learned what these four knobs do. we now know more than we did before."
thanks, michael aiello, for teaching so many of us more than we knew before.