T was one of my top students last year, and I am currently his mentor for a senior research paper. I recently found out that he spent much of his childhood in a Nepalese refugee camp, where he had no formal education and worked in a rat-infested restaurant to support himself. The following interaction took place at one of our mentoring sessions last week.
I made my last edit—squeezing a little red “s” into the space after a verb—and returned the notebook to T.
“This is a great thesis statement; I’m really proud of you. Let’s meet up again in a couple days when you’re done with your outline.”
“Thank you, mister.” He started gathering up his notebook and colored pens. “Oh, I talked to professor at URI. He gave me this paper.” T sheepishly pulled out an official-looking sheet on university letterhead—a list of recommended courses for prospective physics majors. He pointed to a sophomore-year course titled “Elementary Modern Physics” and looked at me expectantly.
I skimmed the course description. “T, this is great! Look, you’re going to learn about relativity and quantum mechanics and all the stuff you always ask me about. Remember when I mentioned Schrodinger’s wave equation a few weeks ago?”
He hesitated for moment. “Yes… Umm, mister, I asked Mr. L [his physics teacher] about that. He said, do not worry about it because I will not see it until college.” T’s Nepalese accent always came out thickest when he was upset. He looked down and fingered the sheet dejectedly.
I didn’t know what to do. As a teacher, every fiber of my being wanted to give T what he clearly desired, but introducing a second order differential equation to a student without a background in pre-calc, much less calculus, seemed… taboo. I eyed my door to make sure it was closed.
“Hey T,” I almost whispered, “Do you want a crash course in quantum mechanics?” He nodded vigorously.
For the next hour, we escaped to an exotic land of particles, energy, and waves. Anything that T had no concept of, I replaced with a more familiar idea—derivatives became slopes; complex exponential functions became sine functions; Ψ(r) became f(x), which became a probability; “particle in a box” became “tennis ball in a classroom.” T didn’t follow every step, but he was learning; his mouth remained perpetually half-open from mental exertion as his pencil flew across his paper.
Then came the kicker: the “orbitals” that he had learned about in chemistry—those funny bulbous shapes that determined the interaction of everyday matter—were really just electrons ending up where the wave equation said they would probably end up. T’s eyes went wide. This was his first time seeing the connection between the physics of the classroom and the physics of the universe, and he was struggling to take it all in.
“So T, what do you think?”
“Mister… I don’t know. This is really cool. Thank you.”
He shook his head, packed up his things, and walked out of my classroom staring at the notes he had taken. I waited until the door closed behind him, then shook my own head. Physics was really cool—but what I had just witnessed was downright miraculous.