Please Say Thank You

Please Say Thank You

The time is now to thank your mentors and heroes.
 

I first learned to program computers in junior high school, circa 1976. As a freshman I began hanging out in a cramped unfinished room in the back corner of the large high school. The space more resembled a sci-fi cave than a classroom. It was Henry Petersen's office and the home of an HP mainframe computer. Petersen was the visionary math educator who brought computing to Wayne (N.J.) Public Schools in the early 1960s. Other districts that paid for access to our timeshare system financed the gear.

My interest in computing and budding talent as a programmer earned me a place among a handful of kids trusted with running the mainframe. We had access to all usernames and passwords because we also created the accounts. We backed up the magnetic tape drives. And Petersen's secretary would graciously take messages for us when we gave out the office phone number as if it were our own. It was not uncommon for us to stay and tinker with the computer late into the night. I remember being told, "have fun, lock up when you're done," as one of the last adults left the high school.

Coincidence

As the microcomputer age dawned, Petersen created and led a nonprofit cooperative of New Jersey school districts interested in using computers in the classroom. In 1983, he called and offered me a job. His organization was offering a 12-week Logo programming course for educators, at a time when people would actually attend such professional development workshops voluntarily. The attendees complained that the workshop teacher was going too fast and losing them in the dust, and Petersen acknowledged that discomfort by arranging to offer a slower class to run simultaneously. I would teach that course, the first time I ever taught teachers. Two people volunteered to move to my more kind and gentler class.

He signed my schedule card, enabling me to take three doctoral-level courses as an undergraduate.

Both were school secretaries. This was also a time when school secretaries would enroll in Logo workshops! I would introduce a new concept and then give my "class" some time to experiment. During that time I would peek around the corner and watch what the "scary" teacher next door was doing.

He was magnificent. I would have eagerly traded my position as teacher to be his student. We met one night after class. We were both named Gary. He was a professor at Rutgers. I was a sophomore at Rutgers early in my seven-and-a-half-year undergraduate career. Greenberg suggested that I enroll in his course - something like "Creative Arts and Education." It was essentially a Logo programming course with meta-discussions about learning, creativity and cognition.

We had to purchase our own copy of Apple Logo, and our homework assignments typically required more than eight hours of work. Greenberg mocked my programming style and rid me of my dependence on global variables. I never worked so hard before in any academic context. However, the course was exhilarating and I eagerly embraced each challenge.

He did not suffer fools gladly and was frustrated by the part-time nature of so many Rutgers graduate students. At the end of the first course he suggested that most of my 45 classmates not take subsequent courses, leaving a delightful six or eight students. He invited me to take two more courses before he left Rutgers for Northwestern and signed my schedule card, enabling me to take three doctorallevel courses as an undergraduate.

Inspiration

Greenberg's kindness, inspiration, talent and faith in me, like that of Petersen, formed the foundation for my entire adult life. I learned about my capacity. I formalized my programming knowledge. I became a teacher educator and a member of the Logo community. Seymour Papert and other remarkable educators became lifelong friends and colleagues as a result of the entr?e Greenberg granted.

More than 15 years later, a man I barely recognized stood at the back of a presentation I made at NECC. He waited for me to finish and said, "You probably don't remember me ..."

It was Gary. I was so thrilled to reunite with him and am so grateful that I was able to tell him how much he meant to me. He too was pleased that I was using what he taught me to make schools better places for children. In the intervening years we enjoyed dinner or drinks on a few occasions when we were both happened to be at the same conference. Time had passed and our own children were now the age I was when he was my teacher. Greenberg was in a leadership position at Northwestern but continued to play a significant role in K12 educational computing through the creation of the Collaboratory, an online collaborative platform years ahead of its time, and music composition via MIDI decades before Apple's Garageband arrived on the scene.

Gary Greenberg was in the acknowledgements in my doctoral dissertation, and I intended to send him a copy. I don't think I ever even told him that I finally earned my Ph.D. I figured that we would have time to chat the next time we ran into one another.

Yesterday I received a devastating email informing me that Gary had passed away in his sleep. I am so grateful that I had been able to tell him how much he meant to me.

 

Please take the time to thank your mentors and heroes. It's a nice gesture and may warm your heart forever.

Gary S. Stager, gary@stager.org, is senior editor of District Administration and editor of The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate (ww.districtadministration.com/pulse).


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