2+1=0: How Nick Vesper Changed My Perceptions of Math, Learning, and Learning Math

I’ll admit it, it was one of “those days.”  You know, those days where you’re just trying to make it to that 3:00 finish line, focusing on the soccer match you’re going to after school rather than what’s going on in class.  And let’s face it, a 6th period Calculus class typically isn’t the one thing that can snap you out of that lackadaisical feeling.

But walking into the classroom and seeing “2+1=0” on the whiteboard is one of the things that can.  I looked at Evan Baughman and we gave each other that “what the hell is going on right now?” look—after all, our teacher had just tried to tell us 2+1 was in fact zero—and burst into laughter.  I remember laughing on and off for five straight minutes myself and still trying to figure out what was going on.  It’s one of the moments I don’t think I’ll soon forget.

But the funny thing about the whole thing?  A week later, I was understanding this broken math to prove that for any value, n(n+1)(2n+1) will always be divisible by 6.  I went from laughing at what was on the board to falling in love with number theory in just a few short class periods.  That’s the power of a University education.

But alas, I’m not talking about being taught by a University faculty member.  You see, for the first six weeks of the school year, Nick Vesper was my Advanced Calculus teacher.  When I heard that Nick Vesper died, I was a little bit shocked—after all, I had never had a teacher pass away during the school year—but as time went on, I was able to smile at the impact he had on me.  I remembered the moments from the six weeks we were together that made me go “what in the world is happening?” and the moments that were truly special.

But above all else, I remembered the way Nick Vesper taught us as students.  We were never assigned strict homework assignments, rather being told to “fool around” with a long problem or two.  He often never expected us to actually get the right answer, rather, he wanted us to try and take what we knew and use it in ways we wouldn’t have imagined.  He taught us things that simply blew our minds out of the water, teaching us Laplace transforms, used in advanced fields of physics and engineering.  And he taught us that 2+1 could in fact equal zero—that is in modulo 3.  “Modulo math” could also be known as “remainder math”—in mod 4, the number 6 would equal 2 and in mod 5, it would equal 1—that would be the remainder if we divided 6 by 4 and 5 respectively.  It was a radically different way to go about math, but more than anything it was a way to describe what we were already doing in our minds.

We were Nick Vesper’s last class.  Granted, the nine of us in what would later be Mr. Napier and Mr. Morrison’s Advanced Calculus / Calculus BC class only had Nick Vesper for six weeks, but what he taught us may very well be remembered for the rest of our lives.

But you know what’s definitely going to stick with me for the rest of my life?  How Nick Vesper didn’t just treat us like students dragging through every school day.  He treated us like we wanted to be there, like we wanted to put our minds to the test, and like we wanted to go home and “fool around” with the holy grail of math problems for homework.  That’s what I’ll always remember him for.

Godspeed, Nick Vesper.  We’ll miss you.

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