Peter Foy remembers a man who inspired him to realise his dreams with tales of Colditz and an infectious love of mathematics
When I was at school we followed a programme of mathematics called the School Mathematics Project (SMP). I mean no disrespect to the people who developed it, but it was awful – or at least it was for me.
|We were supposed to be learning maths, but his tales of Colditz were far more interesting.|
This is my story of how I escaped SMP, fell in love with Prime Numbers, and learnt to pursue my passions.
A cool Yule
My story starts with Lieutenant-Colonel Jimmy Yule. He taught me maths up to O level, which is GCSE in today’s money. If the class was bored with maths, we knew we could distract Mr Yule by asking him about Colditz. He had been a Prisoner of War in that infamous camp and the BBC was running a drama series about it at the time.
We were supposed to be learning maths, but his tales of Colditz were far more interesting. He told us in vivid detail what it was like in the camp and identified inaccuracies in the TV programme’s depiction. It was all a welcome distraction from wrestling with vectors and sets.
As a class, I suppose we thought of Jimmy as a bit of a dodderer, an old man who was easily distracted.
How wrong we were.
One day, he called me aside and said that although the class was not the best he had taught he thought that four of us – me included – had real potential as mathematicians.
|“If you have a passion, you must follow it,”...|
“Listen old man,” he said. “I would like to coach you through the O level so you can take it early. We won’t use this SMP stuff. We’ll do proper maths. Fancy it?”
I did fancy it. So, did David, Sue and Ann. We became Jimmy’s protégés.
A passion for learning
In the following months I learnt mathematics from a man who was a famous captive in Colditz castle, using his knowledge to set up a clandestine radio receiver in the prison. Jimmy introduced me to Poincare and Riemann, to Prime numbers and differential calculus. His passion for maths infected me and has stayed with me ever since.
After the exams I was cast in the school play. Jimmy had been responsible for staging plays in Colditz and directed musicals at my school. After my first performance he came up to me and said that maths and the theatre were equally valid career options.
“If you have a passion, you must follow it,” he enthused, gripping my arm and looking me straight in the eyes. It’s a conversation I’ve never forgotten.
Looking back, I realise that Mr Yule taught me something important. Not just to follow my passions, but also that inspirational leaders don’t want you to follow them. They want you to realise who you are.
Today I still struggle fully to understand Prime Numbers, but the struggle is a hobby not a chore. I suppose you could call it a passion, imparted by a man who saw his role as helping others become more fully themselves.
Thanks, Jimmy. I owe you.
Published: 1 May 2020
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