Werner Barth was the best teacher I ever had. A wiry man with a spring in his step, a sparkle in his eye, a gravelly voice and a thick German accent, Barth had a tremendous effect on me. Strangely, it had nothing to do with the topic he was teaching.
Barth taught statics - defined in one dictionary as “The branch of physics that deals with physical systems in equilibrium, in which no bodies are in motion, and all forces are offset or counterbalanced by other forces.” It was potentially one of the most boring subjects on earth.
But not with Barth as the teacher.
He loved to teach. And he loved his students.
He communicated ideas in ways that were fun and memorable.
One day, to illustrate the difference in direction between a positive bending moment and a negative bending moment, he stood on his chair and swung his hand up to his head. As he scratched his head, he said, “You can do this on the subway. That’s a positive bending moment.”
He then swung his hand down to his rear end. As he scratched, he said, “You can’t do this on the subway. That’s a negative bending moment.”
25 years later I still remember the difference.
What impressed me most, though, was his reaction when our entire class performed poorly on a test.
At that point he had been teaching for more than 25 years, longer than most of us in the class had been alive. But there was not an ounce of pride in Barth. At our next scheduled lesson, he pulled up a chair in the middle of the classroom, sat down and questioned us for an hour about how he could improve his teaching methods.
Even after years of learning, applying and teaching, he was still a student.
What I learned in that classroom had only a bit to do with statics, and a lot to do with a lifetime of learning, humility and working within your passion.
16 years after leaving the program, I tracked him down and called him out of the blue to thank him. He remembered me. “Ah, Larry…skinny guy!” He remembered all of his students by name, and kept in touch with many of them.
He told me about his retirement 14 years earlier, his recent hiking trip, and how he had beaten colon cancer a few years ago. He spoke with a positive attitude and an appreciation for life that surpassed just about anyone I’ve ever known.
When I grow up, I want to be like him.
It has been eight years since that phone call. I’m sorry to say that I have again lost touch with Barth, but I know we’ll meet again. And when we do, I’m sure he’ll have a sparkle in his eye.
Who is the best teacher you ever had?