First Derek Story

When I was at high school I had a great mathematics teacher called Derek Long. He was a man for whom every equation held a story — and the story hardly ever related to science — it was always a matter of life. This, my first Derek story, is prompted by Guy Kawasaki’s blog on How Not to Suck Whilst on a Panel.

As the time for university approached us, Derek was in a more philosophical mode during lessons. He would impart important advice … tips and tricks to ensure your success, and in fact, this one I still use today.

While in a tutorial room, Derek was peering one morning at the blackboard at the far end of the room. The room was large and the class numbers were significant. It was going to be a challenge to garner some attention from the overtaxed lecturer. But this one morning, something caught his eye.

Looking at a very long equation stretching across half the room, Derek found something that he could not understand. Was it an error? Was it simply beyond his understanding? Why had no one noticed it before?

Derek raised his pale undergraduate arm into the air.

"Yes?", the lecturer asked. "Mr Long, isn’t it?". "Y-yes", Derek stammered, his words tripping over themselves on the way down the aisle.

"What is it, man?".

"I don’t understand the section in the middle", Derek explained.

The lecturer paused, glared around the room in search of other learning failures, then turned on his heel to examine the middle section. All of a sudden his head tipped up as if in some silent salute to the power of the equation, and he pulled his cardigan down across his wrist and rubbed a line of chalk out, quickly replacing it with another.

He turned around, waved to Derek and said, "well spotted, Long", and continued on with his lesson.

So what? I hear you ask. Well, Derek’s secret was that he remained as confused about this new change as anything else. Did he ask another question to help clarify his problem? Of course not, he didn’t understand the equation, but he wasn’t stupid — he had raised his profile with his lecturer as well as everyone in the room. You don’t give that sort of profile away easily.

So, on that hot summer day many years ago, Derek taught us all to speak up and answer the easy questions early on in tutorials. Because the questions only get harder as the class continues.