Last summer, I signed Dragon up for an evening physics class. Physics had been the bane of my existence in high school. My teacher was a Chinese woman who had come here recently, incredibly smart but didn’t yet speak English very well. I would have struggled with learning physics in English, much less having to learn it with a little bit of Chinese. Plus, I was not blessed with any natural physics talent, so let’s just say it was a very long semester.
Dragon was a natural at math. Comfortable in the language of numbers and interested in the worlds of science, he grasped STEM concepts with ease. I thought he would benefit from a summer physics class to prepare him for physics in the Fall. In my heart, I also believed that he might even enjoy it. Our teacher, Dr. Li, had been teaching Dragon math for several years through his Ardent Academy programs. He’s really challenged and pushed Dragon’s mastery of different math concepts and classes. A skilled teacher and lecturer, Dr. Li was a physics major, so I was looking forward to Dragon taking this physics class where Dr. Li was in his element.
When I picked Dragon up from his first class, he laughed as he got into the car.
“How was class?” I asked.
“Yeah, it was good,” he said. “I thought I was getting it, but the kid next to me is so much smarter! I was on question 2 of the quiz when I noticed he was already finishing question 10!” Dragon could get his mind around the concepts, but he also recognized that he was in class with students who either had already studied some physics or were gifted in the subject.
Dragon worked on his homework steadily for the next couple weeks, collaborating with other students in class via texts and emails, complaining good naturedly about how hard it was. While the sunny summer days passed by with Dragon at his desk, doing homework and finishing labs, I felt a little guilty for having him in this hard core physics class. His friends were out enjoying lazy summer evening bike rides while Dragon sat inside a windowless classroom. The T.A. was a tough grader, and Dragon struggled with each homework assignment. But I could see that Dragon was enjoying the challenge.
Dragon’s last day of class fell on the last Friday of July, on an evening where we attend an annual benefit concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It’s a wonderful concert supporting KYCC (Korean Youth and Community Center), an organization we feel strongly about. But alas, this year, Dragon would not be able to attend. Last day of physics! I decided to stay home with him. When I picked Dragon up at 8:00, he climbed into the car with excitement in his eyes.
“How was class?” I asked.
“Great. Guess what? I think I want to go for Physics Olympiad!”
“Yeah? Why, what happened?”
“Well, Dr. Li wrote on the board a really hard Physics Olympiad question, and he challenged us to see if anyone could answer it. I thought about it and thought about it, and finally wrote down my answer, but I didn’t think I got it right so I didn’t write it on the board. No one answered the question. But when Dr. Li finally put the answer on the board, it was the same as mine. I got it right!”
“That’s great, Dragon!” I cheered, hearing the pride in his voice. “But, I wish you would have taken the chance to write your answer on the board.”
“I know. But at least I got it right. And I think I want to take AP Physics next year, as a sophomore,” he enthused.
“Well, that sounds really hard. Are you sure you want to take such a challenging subject with the rest of your honors classes? I just wanted you to get a preview of physics so that you’d be more prepared for regular physics in the Fall. Not necessarily so that you’d jump to AP Physics,” I countered.
“But if I don’t take AP Physics this year, I won’t be able to take the AP Physics test my junior year,” he argued. “And,” he continued, “I think I might be good enough for Physics Olympiad.”
Hearing him talk about physics, I no longer wanted to talk him out of it. If he was that excited about physics, it wasn’t my role to get him to take an easier path. This is exactly why we encourage our kids to try new things – to see if they can find something they enjoy and get excited learning about.
Dragon and I decided to go to dinner at Chef Hung’s for bowls of Taiwanese beef noodle soup, one of our favorite dishes. As we waited for our steamed dumplings to arrive, Dragon wrote physics equations on my paper placemat, challenging me to figure out the Physics Olympiad question Dr. Li had posed to his class. But before I could even begin, Dragon had to first write down some basic physics equations for me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t wrap my head around the question, much less come up with an answer, but my algebra skills at least enabled me to solve for the unknown variables. I watched in amazement as my 14 year old son patiently walked me through the concepts of force and friction, writing out equations by memory, and explaining how he ultimately came up with his solution. It’s humbling when your child outdoes you in a subject as basic as math. It’s amazing to watch the fruit of your womb master a complex subject, then take on the roles of tutor and teacher. That evening, I noticed how Dragon was planning ahead on his own, thinking through which classes he would need to take in order to achieve certain goals. I enjoyed witnessing his growth and achievement and hearing his plans and ambitions. I felt immensely proud of my son.
We laughed and started talking about other things. When our noodles came, I folded up the paper placemat and stowed it safely in my bag. I relished watching Dragon enjoy his dinner, and slurped my own noodles with pleasure. It was a lovely mother and son moment. That was our last dinner together, just the two of us. That night was July 31.
Dragon died two weeks later, on August 14.