Quantum Frontiers salutes an English teacher


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If I ever mention a crazy high-school English teacher to you, I might be referring to Mr. Lukacs. One morning, before the first bell rang, I found him wandering among the lockers, wearing a white beard and a mischievous grin. (The school had pronounced the day “Dress Up as Your Favorite Writer” Day, or some such designation, but still.1) Mr. Lukacs was carrying a copy of Leaves of Grass, a book by the nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman, and yawping. To yawp is to cry out, and Whitman garnered acclaim for weaving such colloquialisms into his poetry. “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” he wrote in Leaves of Grass—as Mr. Lukacs illustrated until the bells rang for class. And, for all I know, until the final bell.

I call Mr. Lukacs one of my crazy high-school English teachers despite never having taken any course of his.2 He served as the faculty advisor for the school’s literary magazine, on whose editorial board I served. As a freshman and sophomore, I kept my head down and scarcely came to know Mr. Lukacs. He wore small, round glasses and a bowtie. As though to ham up the idiosyncrasy, he kept a basket of bowties in his classroom. His hair had grayed, he spoke slowly, and he laughed in startling little bursts that resembled gasps.&

Junior year, I served as co-editor-in-chief of the literary magazine; and, senior year, as editor-in-chief. I grew to conjecture that Mr. Lukacs spoke slowly because he was hunting for the optimal word to use next. Finding that word cost him a pause, but learning his choice enriched the listener. And Mr. Lukacs adored literature. You could hear, when he read aloud, how he invested himself in it.&

I once submitted to the literary magazine a poem about string theory, inspired by a Brian Greene book.3 As you might expect, if you’ve ever read about string theory, the poem invoked music. Mr. Lukacs pretended to no expertise in science; he even had a feud with the calculus teacher.4 But he wrote that the poem made him feel like dancing.

You might fear that Mr. Lukacs too strongly echoed the protagonist of Dead Poets Society to harbor any originality. The 1989 film Dead Poets Society stars Robin Williams as an English teacher who inspires students to discover their own voices, including by yawping à la Whitman. But Mr. Lukacs leaned into the film, with a gleeful sort of exultation. He even interviewed one of the costars, who’d left acting to teach, for a job. The interview took place beside a cardboard-cutout advertisement for Dead Poets Society—a possession, I’m guessing, of Mr. Lukacs’s.

This winter, friends of Mr. Lukacs’s helped him create a Youtube video for his former students. He sounded as he had twenty years before. But he said goodbye, expecting his cancer journey to end soon. Since watching the video, I’ve been waffling between reading Goodbye, Mr. Chips—a classic novella I learned of around the time the video debuted—and avoiding it. I’m not sure what Mr. Lukacs would advise—probably to read, rather than not to read. But I like the thought of saluting a literary-magazine advisor on Quantum Frontiers. We became Facebook friends years ago; and, although I’ve rarely seen activity by him, he’s occasionally effused over some physics post of mine.

Physics brought me to the Washington, DC area, where a Whitman quote greets entrants to the Dupont Circle metro station. The DC area also houses Abraham Lincoln’s Cottage, where the president moved with his wife. They sought quietude to mourn their son Willie, who’d succumbed to an illness. Lincoln rode from the cottage to the White House every day. Whitman lived along his commute, according to a panel in the visitors’ center. I was tickled to learn that the two men used to exchange bows during that commute—one giant of politics and one giant of literature.

I wrote the text above this paragraph, as well as the text below, within a few weeks of watching the Youtube video. The transition between the two bothered me; it felt too abrupt. But I asked Mr. Lukacs via email whether he’d mind my posting the story. I never heard back. I learned why this weekend: he’d passed away on Friday. The announcement said, “please consider doing something that reminds you of George in the coming days. Read a few lines of a cherished text. Marvel at a hummingbird…” So I determined to publish the story without approval. I can think of no tribute more fitting than a personal essay published on a quantum blog that’s charted my intellectual journey of the past decade.

Here’s to another giant of literature. Goodbye, Mr. Lukacs.

Image from wmata.com

1I was too boring to dress up as anyone.

2I call him one of my crazy high-school English teachers because his wife merits the epithet, too. She called herself senile, enacted the climax of Jude the Obscure with a student’s person-shaped pencil case, and occasionally imitated a chipmunk; but damn, do I know my chiasmus from my caesura because of her.

3That fact sounds hackneyed to me now. But I’m proud never to have entertained grand dreams of discovering a theory of everything.

4AKA my crazy high-school calculus teacher. My high school had loads of crazy teachers, but it also had loads of excellent teachers, and the crazy ones formed a subset of the excellent ones.