Saturday, January 01, 2011

FLHS: Mr. Pickett understood

I had an incredible high school AP math teacher my junior and senior year, Mr. Pickett at Fort Lauderdale High School (FLHS).  My class (1984) by the way was great.  They still get together in Ft. Lauderdale during the holidays.  In fact all the classes before and after me were great.  They were the stuff of what we picture high school to be at its best.  At least I thought so.

And now to the obscure you could only expect of me ;-)  I had Mr. Pickett for Calculus my senior year.  He was, by the way, even better than my college calculus teacher.  He was so good for me that I can still remember things he said, and I don't remember anything from real life. ;-)

I remember him talking about the "epsilon-delta" confusion in the first weeks of calculus.  He told us not to worry about it.  He said the only person he knew who claimed to understand it was a fellow student of his at Florida State, who occasionally would fall down the stairs because he wasn't paying attention to where he was going.  He said they would yell, "Are you okay, x?" And he would yell back, "Yeah."

I took that as a challenge.  I would eventually look at this epsilon-delta confusion.  I would understand it.  And I did when I was in college.  It isn't actually that big of a deal.  It's mathematicians dotting their i's and crossing t's in a way that seems complicated--much ado about nothing for the rest of us.

The point is that Mr. Pickett understood.  I know he did.  He just knew it was completely unnecessary for us to know.  It would have blown almost everyone's circuit breakers over something completely unimportant unless you're going to be a math professor.

So here's to Mr. Pickett, wherever you are.  He moved back to South Carolina the year or so after I graduated, much to the loss of FLHS.

P.S. Yes, I remain a nerd on my own time. ;-)


David Alyea said...

Hey Ken,

Great post. Do you really recall his exact jokes? That's amazing! Would love to hear more. I do recall that he often had "groaner" jokes that were cheesy, yet good, and certainly endeared him to many of us. Glad to hear you figured out epsilons and deltas! That part I do recall, that he boiled down the ideas to the essence. You know, a very remarkable number of scored 4 or 5 on the AP tests, getting college credit in calculus. He was an excellent teacher, no doubt about it.

David Alyea

Ken Schenck said...

That's the only specific joke I remember. The only other specific thing that comes to mind is him talking about asymptotes going off one side of the board and coming back on the other side. I also remember the time at the end of the school year when he was done with his goals and did a little number theory with us.

You did math at Davidson, right? Are you teaching? Did you stay in North Carolina?

I did a Google search on Phil Picket and found this 2010 comment from a student at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, South Carolina:

"I had the great fortune of having Mr. Pickett as a teacher for two years in high school. (Algebra 3/Trig and AP Calculus) He inspired me as a learner and made math really make sense for the first time, even though I had always made good grades. There are several things that he always said that will stay with me forever. He challenged us as we prepared for tests to be so ready that we dared the teacher to give us a problem we couldn't do. I loved that philosophy and it was with me through college as well. We always were amazed by his intelligence, but he always said: 'I'm not smart. I work hard.' That lesson too has stayed with me even to this day. As a teacher now (16 yrs.), Mr. Pickett is always with me. He was so kind and patient, even when we asked numerous questions and needed extra guidance. Even though I don't teach math, what he inspired in me is what I hope to inspire in my students."

That put her graduation around 1990. I imagine he must be about 70 now if he's living. I guess "Uncle Mel" died last year.

Hope you are well!

Stephanie Hawkins said...

Amazing what a google search to try and find your ex-Calculus teacher can bring up. I personally graduated from James F. Byrnes High School in 2009. The year before that, I had Mr. Pickett for AP Calculus. That was his last year teaching, which puts his final teaching year at 2008. I am SO very grateful to have been the last generation of students to receive his amazing teaching.

Hopefully there are many more out there like him. He was a GREATLY influential teacher to his students, to say the least.

Ken Schenck said...

I fear that many of those who could be like him today are being siphoned off to help with the lowest common denominator or being bogged down with obsessive paper work to satisfy government assessments. Having just spent four months in Germany, I really think American schools need to separate students by aptitude and behavior so that we don't bury the brightest in our legitimate desire to save those at risk.

My opinions...

John Faricelli said...

I also had the great fortune to have both Mr. Pickett and Mel Atkinson when I attended FLHS...
in 1974. The two of them had this odd couple relationship. Mel Akinson would burst into his classroom spouting nonsequitors (Mel had a long running gag that he was a Martian). After he left the room,
Mr. Pickett would go to the filing cabinet and pull out a manila envelope... "I've got a file on him!"

One of Mr. Pickett's quotes that always stuck with me was "Math is not a spectator sport!"

Anyone have any contact information for Mr. Pickett?
I suppose I could try the high school where he last taught.

Angelina Shuman said...

I had Mr. Pickett for Geometry and AP Cal in HS. I graduated in 1996. His son is a year older than me and we are friends-Mr. Pickett is definitely still kicking it!

I remember one time, someone fell asleep in class, and he calmly walked over to her desk, grabbed the yard stick, and whacked the desk with all his might. I love that man.