Whenever someone writes about a beloved former teacher, the story usually follows a familiar template. When the person was a young student, there was only one teacher who truly believed in them and supported them, and it was because of that teacher that they followed their dreams.
This isn’t one of those stories, but it’s still a story about one of the best teachers I ever had.
The year was 1999 and I had just entered the ninth grade. I was scheduled to take physics, which seemed like some kind of divine punishment for sins I had committed in a previous life. My science teacher in the seventh and eighth grades had been the worst teacher I would ever experience, holding her students to impossibly high standards and instilling in me a level of constant anxiety that probably rivaled overworked Japanese businessmen in the 1980s. She was one of two ninth grade physics teachers, and I was terrified that I would end up in her class for a third time.
Fortunately, fate intervened, and I instead found myself learning physics from Mr. Walter Loy.
Mr. Loy was in his 40s, a fireplug of a man with jet-black hair, a thick mustache, and glasses. He walked with a cane, which seemed to be more of an affectation than a necessity. He was — and I say this with all due respect — an absolutely enormous nerd.
Fortunately, I was an enormous nerd too, so I quickly took a shine to Mr. Loy.
Mr. Loy had a curious path to teaching. He had gone to graduate school at MIT and then became a Commissioned Officer in the Navy, teaching nuclear physics at the Naval Nuclear Power School in Orlando. Somehow, he then wound up teaching high school physics in southside Virginia.
As an MIT graduate and former professor of nuclear physics, Mr. Loy was smart. Profoundly smart. Given that, I have to imagine that teaching a bunch of dumb ninth graders about Newton’s Laws of Motion was a pretty boring gig.
Because of this, it took virtually no effort to get Mr. Loy to go off-track, which quickly became a favorite pastime for me and my classmates.
For example, there was one class period where I didn’t really feel like learning about kinetic energy or whatever, so I raised my hand and asked Mr. Loy if it was possible to build a working time machine. Not only did he say that it was possible, he spent the remainder of the class explaining how to do it while drawing a rough blueprint on the chalkboard. The time machine was largely theoretical because it involved an artificial wormhole stabilized by dark energy and a giant concrete tube running the length of the nation, but still, it was way more interesting than our scheduled classwork.
On another occasion, Mr. Loy mentioned that he had the uncanny ability to detect magnetic north. One of my classmates said he didn’t believe him, so Mr. Loy brought us all outside and had us blindfold him and spin him around randomly; he pointed to north every time. During another class, someone brought a VHS copy of the Michael Bay movie “Armageddon” to school, the one about oil drillers being trained as astronauts so they could blow up an asteroid. Mr. Loy agreed to let us watch it in class on the condition that every time something scientifically inaccurate happened, he would pause the movie and explain why it was stupid. I think we made it about four minutes in.
Because Mr. Loy went off-track frequently, you might think it would have been a detriment to the students when it came time for a test. This was not the case; we discovered that if you got stuck on a test question, all you had to do was go up to Mr. Loy’s desk and keep asking him for help until he got so frustrated that he’d just tell you the answer. I was a good student, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I used this method on multiple occasions. I passed that class with flying colors.
I liked Mr. Loy so much that I joined both of the clubs he ran; unsurprisingly, they were chess club and astronomy club, although you would be forgiven for assuming he ran a club involving dungeons and/or dragons.
Mr. Loy left the high school to return to his native Pennsylvania when I was in 10th or 11th grade, but I kept in contact with him for awhile. One time, I emailed him to ask how those little top hat wearing drinking birds work; another time, I asked him what he thought about the paradoxes of the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea. On both occasions, he sent me thoughtful novella-length responses.
I lost contact with Mr. Loy sometime in the early 2000s, but every year or so, I would look him up online to see if I could find a Facebook page or an email address. I always struck out.
Last week, I realized it had been awhile since I’d looked up Mr. Loy. Unfortunately, I found his obituary; he passed away in April 2023.
Back in ’99, I think my friends and I — no matter how much we liked him personally — would not have characterized Mr. Loy as a great teacher. With the benefit of hindsight, I realize we were wrong. I may not remember much about basic physics, but I vividly remember his deep dives into high-level scientific concepts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a 400-level college course.
Perhaps most importantly, that class managed to wash away the anxiety I had felt about the sciences; he demonstrated every day that science didn’t have to be a painful slog, it could be fun, too.
It’s a shame I never got another chance to catch up with Mr. Loy. Maybe one of these days, someone will get around to building that time machine.