Sunday, June 19, 2011

My Pop

"Why'd you move your pawn there? Do you see why that was a stupid move?"

Even at five I was pretty sure that it wasn't really a question. It was Saturday afternoon and my dad was "teaching" me to play chess. My dad's teaching philosophy was not compromised by misguided notions of allowing a novice to win every once in a while so as to bolster his confidence. He felt that one should learn to play in "honest" competition.

I looked down at the board, up at my dad, down at the board and back up at my dad. I'd just finally got down where all the pieces go and how they each move. The idea of strategy hadn't occurred to me.

"I don't know."

My dad moves one of his pieces, one of mine, one of his, one of mine, and finally one of his, and then says, "See, you set yourself up for checkmate in just three moves. It's called a Fool's Mate."

I look at the board and then at my dad with no clue as to what he just showed me. I say, "Can we go play baseball instead?"

My dad was born in Finland on July 17, 1928. His dad was an itinerant preacher who traveled the world establishing Finnish-speaking churches. My dad didn't see him all that much as a kid, spending most of his time with his mom and two older sisters.

Although no one in the family showed any penchant for math and science, my dad took to them like a Finn to drinking. His parents and sisters showed little interest in his school work (dad once told me that no one at home ever looked at his report card), and yet, by the time he'd reached the eighth grade, he was three years ahead in school.

My grandfather was outside the country at the outbreak of World War II and wasn't able to return until the war ended. To support the family, my dad tutored calculus to college students. He was thirteen.

When his fellow graduating classmates were drafted into the Finnish army, he went with them. An intake doctor suspected my dad was not as old as the others and asked, "Does your mother know that you're here?"

He replied, "Yes", and was inducted along with his friends. He hadn't told anyone in his family what he was doing or where he was going.

Dad's math abilities made him useful in calculating the trajectories for antiaircraft guns. Rather than using their codebooks, pencil and paper, the gun operators would simply give him the data; he'd close his eyes for a few seconds and then tell them where to aim the guns.

A few months passed and one day my dad's uncle, who'd been searching for my dad since he left, showed up to take him home.

After the war, my dad, his mom and his sister Salme came to the US, settling in Worcester, MA. Finnish friends helped him to get a job at a local steel mill and he enrolled in the electrical engineering program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He didn't speak English and was denied enrollment by the English department chair. The chairs of the Math, Physics and Engineering departments overrode the decision. The English chair provided my dad no special consideration. His first English course was Shakespeare.

Looking back now, it's no surprise that the design of my first chess course was: play a grand master and figure out why you loose all the time. My dad took that approach with pretty much all of parenting. If I were to codify it, it would be something like:
  1. Here's the task.
  2. I'll show you once.
  3. Now you do it.
  4. If it doesn't work, figure it out.
As I think about it, there are lots of worse ways to teach your kids and although it might not have worked for others, it seems ultimately to have worked for me.

What I learned from dad is:
  1. The fact that something seems impossible at the time you begin learning it is completely irrelevant to whether or not you can learn it.
  2. You don't need teachers to learn. There's nothing you can't figure out for yourself, once you decide to do it.
  3. When you teach yourself, you learn things that they never teach in classrooms.
  4. The one who seems weakest at the beginning is often the strongest in the end.
  5. The better you become at figuring out things, the less you have to know.
  6. When you don't speak the language (or know the technical lingo), people will often assume you're dumb. So what?

All in all, not too shabby. Thanks, Dad!

Happy Father's Day,

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