Thursday, June 12, 2008

we now know more than we did before

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.


jini said...

this is a wonderful tribute david! i hope mr aiello sees it and knows his impact on you.

sarah said...


i now know more about you than i did before.

sa said...

David, this is a beautiful tribute. I agree with Jini in hoping that Mr. Aiello will see it.

Annie said...

I remember Home Room in Mr. Aiello's class. What was the purpose of Home Room anyway? Do they still have that 10-minute slot in the day? At any rate, I felt lucky to be in Mr. Aiello's Home Room. What a great teacher.

I remember when we had to choose lab partners in chemistry or physics.... and, I appropriately chose Mark Bower and Derek Wall ... two sophomores who I knew would help guarantee me an A in lab, as I was suffering from Senioritis. Mr. Aiello stood at the lab table after we chose partners, and had this knowing smile on his face. "Hello Anne." He had my number.
He was so likable. Knew exactly when I studied for the tests (A's) and when I didn't (not A's.) He always knew I had it in me.... I appreciated that so much.
One day after school my Sophomore year, Mr. Waterbury and Mr. Aiello were talking in one of the classes.....and I remember Mr. Waterbury shaking his head at me in my cheerleading uniform.... right when I became a cheerleader..... Then, he said to Mr. Aiello, "by her senior year she'll be ruined." (Not a high level of respect for cheerleaders from Mr. Waterbury.) And, then, Mr. Aiello just gave that small knowing smile. I knew he didn't think I'd be "ruined." He knew I was smart. Thank you, Mr. Aiello!

....J.Michael Robertson said...

This recalls to mind a couple teachers of my own who were better than they needed to be. I remember Mr. Collie telling us he painted houses during the summer to make ends meet. I remember Bertha K. Fischer, whose nickname was 'Grendel.' I think, perhaps, Hallmark needs to promote a Remembering Teachers Auld Lang Syne Day, the benefits of which would make me forgive the mercenary motive.

david silver said...

jini, sarah, and mom - thanks!

sarah - super thanks!

annie - great memories, thanks for the comment. i completely know what you mean about "that small knowing smile." exactly! and by the way, waterbury was wrong.

michael - i foresee a series of Great Teachers I've Had posts on Darwin's California Cat Presents the 15-Minute Man. but forget hallmark, what we need is a blog meme!

JenPB said...

Another great thing about Mr. Aiello was that he positively influenced students who never even had his classes! Due to scheduling, I never managed to get in to his classes, but he always knew who I was and I was among many who found their way to his classroom for a taste of sanity. When other teachers were "just doing their jobs," Mr. Aiello was rising above the requirements of his employment contract.

I saw Mr. Aiello early this winter, announcing for yet another swim meet with a smile and enthusiasm for all. As if he didn't have enough to do...

aiello,mike,mr.aiello said...

Hi everyone! This is Mr Aiello-you may all call me mike since you are all much older than I was when I started teaching. My wife-Florence- was making a retirement scrapbook for me and found Davids blog. It was really cool to read your thoughts. Thanks! Annie-Is that Annie Fleming? I sure remember your smile and your bridge-which may still be hanging from the ceiling in the physics room. It is nice to be retired but I will miss all the fun I had interacting with
you in the classroom. I have been doing woodwork for hire while I have been teaching and an currently working on a job in SLO which I think will take about 2 months. Once that is done I think I will retire from that too. If you remember the bridge contest -the current record for a 1 pound popsicle bridge is 3980 #s and we have had about 4 bridges break the 3000 # mark. David that thing I had you work on was a student project originally made by Thaine Norris, Erika Swanson (dad was the music director for cal poly) and some friends. It used a laser to generate patterns. You did a good job figuring out any of the switches, which controled motors. mirrors, diffusion gratings etc.
David, Florence and I will remember your kind offer and when we get up that way will look in on you and Sarah. Well-I will follow Davids instructions and see if I can post this.
Bye for now-Mike Aiello

Ivan Chew said...

And now I can guess at WHY you ended up being a teacher, David.

david silver said...

Mike - thanks for the excellent comment! it's exciting to share this virtual space with you. i'll look forward to our physical meetup in the near future.

Ivan - you're right. =)