I inferred he died by stumbling upon a casual Facebook exchange between two acquaintances. They mentioned a first name, and commented upon how touching the funeral was. They were clearly talking about a teacher from Madras College (my secondary school): I had to search through all the teachers I knew who shared his first name – of which there were several – to find an obituary that confirmed we’d lost him.
This happened last year. It was night and I was the last one in our office. When I stepped away from my laptop and wandered into the lab, the roar of the air handlers seemed louder and more jarring.
I wouldn’t be HERE. Not without him.
Back in 2003, I’d be 14. The age where you’re figuring out what you want to do with your life; but more importantly, the kind of person you want to be. What do you value? How do you define success? Who are you going to model yourself after?
Back in 2003, I was starting my Standard Grades at Madras. The first set of formal qualifications in the Scottish education system. You start to strategise. What are you good at? What do you enjoy? What are you interested in studying at university?
I was good at everything. The year before Standard Grades we all took “general science” – a mashup course. Our final grade would determine how many science Standard Grades we could take. A-grade? All three (Biology, Chemistry, Physics). B-grade? Two max. Etc. This was an intellectual challenge I gunned for: I wanted all three. It was more about points-scoring than long-term planning.
WK became my Standard Grade Chemistry teacher. What entranced 14-year old me was his array of interesting science facts and anecdotes. Chemistry could be linked to the wholesale retail in chip shops (via acetic acid – vinegar). Chemistry could be linked to Grangemouth. When egged on by other students he applied a distinctively scientific mind towards the French language and its verb tables. Or the democratic voting systems we were learning about in Modern Studies. No one else in my Madras College sphere of influence was that much of a generalist. WK was smart. Crucially, he was smart about a lot of things all at once.
That really impressed me.
From Standard Grade to Highers. To Advanced Highers. To university. I chose a degree in science even though I seemed more adept at English literature. But good textual analysis required a scientific sensibility. I chose a degree in Chemistry because I wanted to situate myself in the middle of Science. Biology on the left, Physics on the right – a chemist could grasp at them both.
I’m not the smartest or most talented Chemistry PhD out there. And that’s fine, because I still think I’d prefer to be a generalist. To have anecdotes and interesting facts.
WK died of pancreatic cancer, I found out. By the time he was ill enough to go to the doctor (maybe a week before the end of the school year) it was far too late. He died a couple of weeks after his diagnosis. While I kept in touch with some of my Madras teachers – had mini catch-up chats with others when I passed through the school buildings – I didn’t keep in touch with him. I’m not sure he knew I went for a Chemistry PhD (he stopped at a Masters degree). He certainly didn’t know I was modelling myself and my concepts of “success” and “intelligence” on him.
WK wasn’t one of the cool or popular Madras teachers. He never had trouble keeping control in the classroom – he just had to quietly start talking and the students would silence themselves to listen. I’d argue he was one of the funnier ones. I feel like I was one of the few students listed him as a favourite teacher. But that’s fine.
Thank you, WK. I’ve now got a Chemistry PhD, and as far as I’m concerned I was right to follow you. I know you really liked Bob Dylan, Scottish country music and a bit of Classic FM. I also know you disliked Girls Aloud (“Can’t sing.”). I think maybe you’d like Karine Polwart and her song Terminal Star. It makes me think of you, in any case.