∆ Jackson

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 01 2013

An Open Letter to My High School Physics Teacher

Yesterday, I was told that my high school Physics teacher, Mr. Wertz, had terminal liver cancer.  I was in the process of writing him a letter last night to send him and let him know how much he inspired me.

Then my best friend called me and told me he passed away today.  So here is my open letter to Mr. Wertz.  Maybe he will never see it, but others will know what a great teacher he was.

Dear Mr. Wertz,

I never would have thought, nearly six years after graduating high school that I would find myself as a high school Physics teacher.  Maybe in part, because when I was a junior in high school and considering going into teaching you made me look you in the eye and you said to me, “Do not become a teacher.  Seriously.  Never become a teacher.”  I am almost 100% positive those were you exact words.  I am sure that you smelled like stale cigarettes and I am sure that I laughed and said okay.

Fast forward to June 2012 when I visited you as a fresh-out-of-college graduate with a Bachelor of Architecture.  I waltzed into you classroom and informed you that I had accepted a full time position teaching Physics and Physical Science in the Mississippi Delta corps.

You said to me, “WHAT?!”

I laughed.

You said, “WHAT did I tell you?”

I replied, “You told me never to become a teacher.”

And then you pretended to me mad and frustrated and stuttered around to show how shocked you were, but I could tell you were smiling a little and I am pretty sure you sounded proud of me as we continued our conversation about life over the past few years and my future of teaching.

Now, more than 3/4 of the way through my first year as a teacher, I have to thank you.  Thank you for always holding rigorous and high expectations of us as students and learners.  Thank you for expecting nothing but the best.  Thank you for requiring me to write extremely detailed and specific answers in complete sentences for every single homework assignment I turned in each Friday.  These are all things I have brought into my own teaching.  When a student asks me, “Does this need to be in complete sentences?”  my answer is always yes and then I add, “Don’t use ‘it’ or ‘that’ either.  Be specific!! Use equations to back up your answers!!”

Thank you for teaching me how to set up a problem in Physics.  Your method of problem solving with the variable list on the right, equation and math on the left, and answer in a box has traveled all the way from South Central rural Pennsylvania to Jackson, Mississippi.  One hundred and thirty seven students in Jackson know that if they do not set up their problem this way, Ms K will not accept it.  I expect no less of them than you expected of me.

Thank you, Mr. Wertz, for letting me write all over that super old and falling apart AP Physics book junior year since you knew we were getting new ones the year after.  Thank you for “forgetting” to collect the old books when we came back senior year after doing our summer break assignments and you passed out the new books.  I still have mine.  I used it to study for my PRAXIS and I use it as a reference for teaching my Physics kids when I want to go a little more in depth than their Physics book goes.  It never fails me.

Thank you for inspiring me to love Physics.  I never would have become interested in architecture if it had not been for your AP Physics class.  And I certainly would never have agreed to teach Physics if you had not planted that love for Physics inside of me many years ago.  Sometimes we do a really cool experiment in class and I get all giddy and excited and go on and on about how much I love Physics and how cool Physics is and my kids look at me like I’m a little crazy, and that’s all thanks to you.

Thank you for giving us the perfect balance between helping us out when we were having trouble and letting us figure it out on our own.  I remember one time I worked literally ALL CLASS on one problem and I could NOT figure it out.  I probably asked you a thousand times to just show it to me, but you wouldn’t.  At the end of class, you handed me a folded up sheet of paper that didn’t have the answer on it, but it had the piece that I was missing.  The light bulb went on and all of the sudden, it made sense and I was able to solve the problem.  I learned much more through that continuous failure than I would have if you had given in the first, second, third, or twentieth time that I begged you to just show me the answer.

Thank you for being there everyday, no matter how frustrating we were.  And I KNOW we were sometimes a handful.  I remember how you used to brag that the only day of school you ever missed was for the Hershey Park Physics Day field trip.  Then one day senior year you missed a day and as we sat there with a substitute, working in our groups, we laughed about how you broke that promise you always made every year.  When you came in the next day, we were all over you about it.  “Mr. Wertz, I thought you never missed a day except for Hershey Park.”  You looked over from your desk and raised one eyebrow.  “My mother died,” was all you said.  You said it like a challenge.  Foot.In.Mouth.  Missy wanted to bake you an “I’m sorry” cake.

Lastly, thank you, Mr. Wertz, for being you.  For that tough guy exterior, which made it all the more special when you showed us how much you  cared.  Thank you for caring.  Thank you for believing in us.  Thank you for hanging our college pennants on your wall.  That PhilaU pennant was the first thing I bought from my university bookstore and I felt so proud to bring it back to you Christmas break freshman year.  Thank you.

Littlestown High School will be lacking without you.  I feel lucky to have had you as my teacher and mentor.  I’ll always remember your ‘Wertzology’.  There is no grey.

Sincerely,

Ronnie, LHS class of 2007

21 Responses

  1. I’m sorry he couldn’t read this before he passed but I’m glad his family could see it. Yeah for physics and for great teachers!

  2. Anonymous

    We need to tell more teachers what impact they made in our lives………

  3. Ellen Baumgardner Raggets

    Very touching. I enjoyed reading.

  4. Tom Kittinger

    In my daily head to the high school for a rehearsal and then immediately head back to the middle school for other classes, I never had much time to really get to know the high school teachers I wasn’t directly working with. However, your note, Ronnie, is a beautiful testimony to what education & teaching in particular is all about. Thanks to you and all the others, Mr. Wertz’s legacy will live on for many years to come, and many others will know the important role a teacher can make on a student’s life.

  5. Keith Conrad - Class of '98

    Mr. Wertz was one of my favorite teachers/coaches I ever had. From my freshman year in high school until the day I graduated I learned a lot from him. I am not sure if it was his rough exterior or his wry smile that made the most impact. His methods were unique but effective. It was always about learning something even when sometimes it just felt like agonizing physical or mental punishment. He taught us choice. Various students felt the anguish as they lamented between his easy/quick ways to end their detention “prison term.” His choices had a wide range; they were the Saw movies before the Saw movies. Whether it was trying to balance a tennis ball for a full 60 seconds on the top of a desk you had to hold in the air, correctly counting the packing peanuts in the cardboard box, hold those large Physics books at shoulder height until he decided it was long enough, inclined push-ups where the number increased or decreased depending on who you were, or simply sit there and take the full term punishment. We were always learning.
    To this day (including high school, college, and my military courses) Mr. Wertz’s mid-term exam for Physics was the hardest test I have ever taken. His diabolical method of making you chose not just the answer, or the best answer, but ALL correct answers was agonizing. I walked away from those 100 questions frustrated, but proud. I remember being one of only two people in the class who passed it outright. We both only got a 75% and “wrecked” the curve he so graciously gave us. I fondly often mention to my wife how he ran his lab experiments. I will forever remember one of my lab partners having to type in the password to our computer generated experiment out of fear of saying the word out loud to him. He watched as it was pecked in front of him, shook his head, and continued to help us anyway.
    His ways on the 9th grade football team were just as demanding. You never wanted to miss an assignment. If you did, you tried to anticipate the quick smack of the random gym class arrow he would somehow always find on our practice field. Coach Wertz was hands on and precise. He would gladly move you out of the way and show you exactly what he wanted when you hit the sled, practice dummy, or follow teammate. He cherished the attention to detail. I still remember coming back to visit after high school with a fellow classmate and finding him doing what he loved to do out on the practice field. Instead of just saying hello, he asked us both to return punts and run until every 9th grader tagged us with two hands. We gladly assisted, because we now understood the test he was giving his players.
    I don’t feel bad for me or my classmates that had the chance to learn from him, but rather for those that will now not have the opportunity. For all these reasons and so many more he will missed, RIP.

  6. Melissa A. Tschida

    Ronnie, your letter to Mr. Wertz is beautiful. It says everything. He was demanding, of himself and of his students. It was fair; he gave his all to his students and he expected nothing less in return. Learning and growing is a personal responsibility and Mr. Wertz instilled that sense of responsbility in each of his students. I’m certain that he’s both proud of you and very pleased that you carry on that tradition. Best of everything to you; I’m sure your students will love and respect you as you did him.
    Mrs. Tschida

  7. Molly Christian

    Mr. Wertz never gave up on me, even when I was struggling so much in his class. He pushed me through and in his own way told me never to give up, because I was smarter than the problems I couldn’t solve. He instilled a love of physics in my I will never forget, and he instilled a perseverance in me never to give up even when it gets so hard you want to quit. I wish I could have had the chance to tell him that I moved on, and I moved into science in college, and I’m more than excited to be taking Physics in college next semester.

    I’m going to miss you so much, Mr. Wertz. We lost an amazing human being.

  8. Allison Miler - class of 2011

    I had Mr. Wertz for my freshman physical science class. I, such as all freshman, hated school and didn’t care about my grade. As a result, I disliked Mr. Wertz due to his strict, no nonsense manner. But even though I never liked him as a teacher, he always made me smile, either by yelling at some poor student who didn’t take the “fringe” off the pages of their homework, or ranting about one thing or another. I was truly saddened to see he passed away, he was a great teacher, I only regret not realizing it sooner, when I was a freshman, sitting in his physical science class.

  9. Tina Reese

    I never knew Mr. Wertz personally, however my oldest son Doug did have him for Physics. It is so nice to hear former students speak of teachers who have made a difference in their lives. Teachers have a tough job. Made me smile as I read this letter. May his legacy live on forever through those lives he touched.

  10. Chelsi Deaner

    Wow!! So incredibly true and so wonderful! I remember all of those times you mentioned. My most memorable time was when he spent an entire class period helping me to decide where I was going to apply to college haha! I can still hear his gruff voice telling us all never to go into teaching; but I know he is smiling down on you for all you are instilling in your students Ron!

  11. Leslie Breighner

    So very true. Thank you for sharing. Not too long after Andy started college, he went back to visit Mr. Wertz, with a Messiah College banner, and thanked him for being such a great teacher and actually preparing him for college. Andy and I had numerous conversations about him and I can tell he was a very highly respected teacher.

  12. Patrice Smith

    Ronnie,
    What a wonderful testimony to our best Old School teacher, Ms. K! Congratulations on pursuing your passion, and thank you so much for paying tribute to one of Littlestown’s finest. His legacy lives on … in you, Colleen, and the countless others whose lives have been touched by his firm and caring hand.

  13. Anonymous

    This is a beautiful testimony to such an influential man. Once again a teacher makes a difference.

  14. Dave Milliken

    Great letter. I only had him as a coach and he was hard nosed. He brought out the best in you and never accepted anything else. He will be missed.

  15. Nancy Cook

    This thoughtful letter should be read aloud at his memorial. What a wonderful terstimony to such an influential teacher and wonderful man.
    Thank you Ronnie and thank you Randy!

  16. Colleen Ream

    Thanks for sharing this. I feel exactly the same way. Mr. Wertz had all the same words for me when I told him I was going to school to be a physics teacher. Even though I only teach 4 physics students once a week, they know all about Mr. Wertz and how he called me Ms. Schmidt until I was partway through AP Physics I. And how he taught me to set up physics problems. And they know how to too because that’s how they get their 5/5 on each problem. They also know it had better be in pencil or I would tell them “use pencil or don’t make mistakes.” They know all about his gruff exterior and how that really wasn’t him. They also know not to answer with a question and to sound confident even if they think they are wrong. And they also get problems from my literally falling to pieces high school text.

    I was going to introduce them to him at Physics Day at Hershey Park but I guess I missed my chance. However, I will be doing everything I can to carry on his legacy of the love of physics and teaching it to others. My students often look at me like I am crazy and I think some of them think I expect too much, so I guess I am doing ok!

    -Colleen (Schmidt) Ream, LHS class of 2006

  17. Jim Greene

    Ditto, my children felt the same way about Mr. Wertz and loved him as a teacher. He held the highest expectations and my kids loved that. He was consistent, firm and demanding, and had a sense of humor that my kids loved. I had a chance to work with him at the high school and helped out with the science olympics.

  18. Kit Curlen

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful insight of the teacher, Andy Wertz.

  19. Sharon L. Goldstein

    Very well written, but then I wouldn’t expect any less from this fine young lady!!

  20. Mark Collins

    Beautiful letter! As a coach and teacher, he was hard on you and he had high expectations from you. There were only three of us in his Physics class, so we got to know him very well. I wish I would of let him know how he helped me through my high school years. Much respect and love to “Coach Wertz”.

  21. Rich Megela

    Very well stated. I could tell this was from the heart.

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