“You’ve got to realize the world is a big place—try not to be so up tight.”
After his frank indictment of my character, I stared blankly at Mr. Mortenson, my high school physics teacher and tennis coach. His classroom had the idiosyncrasies of a long-occupied room: a non-standard office attached to the back wall, lined with 20-year-old physics instruction adjuncts and old tennis rackets. We had just handed in another assignment, on which I was accustomed to acing, but had flubbed a sign or made some minor error. I’m sure I looked crushed by my mistake and was redoubling my efforts and asking questions to get the concept right. I really didn’t like any grade less than 100%.
This wasn’t the first piece of advice from Mr. Mortenson. I remember a lecture about Newton’s Laws when he tied in Semisonic’s song Closing Time:
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end
“That’s physics!”, he said. Perhaps it was because he was nearing retirement and his quoting a popular song was almost anachronistic, or perhaps it was because he refused to just focus on physics and instead say something more. I see now that he didn’t want to be limited to dry, rote block-on-incline-plane stuff. No, Mr. Mortenson sometimes actually said stuff that applied to our lives, lives we’d soon be out living.
And then, since it was so unusual to hear anything that applied to the real world, he said something I’m still surprised by today: “Touch the world gently, and it will touch you back gently.” Googling this now, I would guess that it comes from Javan’s 1984 book Something to Someone. But keep in mind, I was coming up on 12 years of education without any teachers talking to me like I’d end up in the real world, and here’s some life advice flying into my head in the middle of a physics lecture.
Given his record for slipping gold into black sand, you’d like to think I immediately took Mr. Mortenson’s “up tight” comment to heart. Fact is, though I remember his comment 10 years later, I did not at all understand it when I first heard it. I couldn’t see that there could be more than jumping through the hoops, that I was just a “really excellent sheep”. I’m glad I remember his words.
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