In 1958, a new high school was opened in the southern part of Great Neck, and "Great Neck Senior High School" (shown to the left) was renamed "Great Neck North High School".
Most of the teachers I had in the Great Neck public schools were quite good, and a few were outstanding. I'll mention in particular Mr. Love, my ninth grade science teacher, and Mr. Watson, my twelfth grade teacher in a Social Studies course called "Great Issues". My chemistry course, taught by Mr. Walsh, was so good that I was able to coast through the first half of my MIT Freshman chemistry course before encountering any new material. As you can see, we referred to all our teachers in those days as "Mr.", "Mrs.", or "Miss". I don't think I knew many of their first names.
The normal progression was to take chemistry in the eleventh grade, and physics in the twelfth. But my father feared that while I was a physics whiz, I might not do so well in the difficult chemistry course. Since your eleventh grade (junior year) marks count heavily towards college admissions, while your twelfth grade marks aren't as important (mostly arriving too late to be considered), he decided that I ought to take physics first, and chemistry second. It took some battles with the school system to get them to agree to this, but they ultimately did. Note 1
I found myself in the physics classroom of a teacher with the odd name of Mr. Lusch, who was the head of the science department. He might have once been an exciting and dynamic teacher, but by the academic year 1957-1958, he seemed to be just going through the motions. I think it might have been his last year before retirement, because my 1959 Arista (the school yearbook) doesn't list him among the science faculty.
He even seemed to be losing command of his subject matter, despite having taught it for decades, perhaps because new material had been added to physics during his career. For instance, it had been decided to reverse the direction in which electrical current is said to flow. Although electrons are negative, and hence actually flow from the negative pole of a battery to the positive pole, it had been decided that the math worked out more simply if it was assumed that "conventional current" flowed from the positive pole to the negative.
A wire carrying a current has a magnetic field around it, and the direction of the field can be determined by holding the wire in your hand, with your thumb pointing in the direction of the current flow. Your fingers then point in the direction of the magnetic field. The reversal of the direction in which the current is said to flow had caused this technique to change from the "Left-hand Rule" to the "Right-hand Rule", which seemed to trip up Mr. Lusch whenever it came up. His grasp of the new material in our physics text was not helped by the fact that the students had stolen his answer book.
Having gone to Cornell, Mr. Lusch believed in an honor code, and he routinely had us grade our own exams in a subsequent class. You can imagine the result of that policy. Students took care to bring back the same pencil they had used to take the exam in the first place, so they could change their answers without being detected. Most of the students were bright and college-bound, and they were bored by the material. One student, I recall, sat in the back of the room, and read the New York Times during the class. The two-period laboratory sessions seemed interminable, and the labs were "cookbook" - do this, do that, what do you observe, blah, blah, blah.
The physics laboratory room in which our classes were held had very large, black, completely opaque "block-out" shades. This allowed us to darken the room to show movies, or to do optical experiments. But Mr. Lusch liked to keep daylight out at all times, so he kept the shades always down, making our classroom rather like a dungeon. Thus I was surprised one day when I came into the room, and it was bathed in sunlight. Someone had raised one of the shades.
Mr. Lusch shortly arrived, and approached the window with his hand over his eyes, as if he were a vampire who feared he would be turned to dust if he were struck by sunlight. He pulled down the black shade, and written across it in chalk was a large letter:
In case you're not old enough to remember, "Zorro" was a fictional character invented by Johnston McCulley. A Spanish nobleman, Don Diego de la Vega, would don a mask and a black cape, defending the people of colonial California against tyranny. After humiliating some villain or other, he would, with three swipes of his sword, carve a large letter "Z" into their shirts (skillfully managing to not even nick the victim). Note 2
Mr. Lusch was furious. He announced that we would sit there and do nothing until the guilty party confessed. And it was a two-period lab session. Nobody confessed.
This blog entry was first posted in April, 2010. But over five years later, I heard from Fred Lehrer, who came across it while doing a web search relating to Great Neck High School. He was actually in Mr. Lusch's class with me when this incident occurred, and he remembered it. He corrected an error I had made in my initial posting of this entry. I had thought that the full name "Zorro" had been written on the shade, whereas Fred recalled only a large letter Z. That actually makes much more sense, as that's what Zorro always carved with his sword. In his e-mail message to me, Fred noted, "I remember the guys doing it before class, and sitting there in great excitement waiting for Lusch to pull down the shade."
Let me move on to some other incidents from Mr. Lusch's class. At one point, we covered a unit on the basic operation of vacuum tubes (hey, kids, ever seen a vacuum tube?). The class learned the schematic symbols for vacuum tube diodes and triodes, and knew how to draw the lines representing the wire connections between the various terminals. On paper, the class knew how to hook everything up. All this material was already familiar to me, as I had been building electronic circuits for some time.
Mr. Lusch was out one day, and we had a substitute teacher. Although it was not a lab day, the substitute brought in, of all things, an actual vacuum tube diode, a battery, and some wires, and asked the class to connect it all up. Given that we had been doing it on paper for quite a while, this was not a difficult task, but the students sat there dumbfounded. It seemed that Mr. Lusch had not managed to convey to the class that the lines they had learned to draw on paper actually represented real physical devices.
The most interesting lab, though, in terms of the attitude of the students in the class, occurred during our study of electric motors. Each group of students was given a simple electric motor to investigate. The "field magnets" were bar magnets, to be positioned with the north pole facing the rotor on one side, and the south pole facing the rotor on the other side. The rotor was made of large nails taped together and wrapped with insulated wire, and there was a simple commutator. The motors were powered by large batteries.
We followed the cookbook instructions in the laboratory workbook, until the point where Mr. Lusch had to leave the room for some reason, instructing us to carry on in his absence. As soon as he was gone, however, the students started deviating from the script. "Would it go faster if we added more field magnets?", someone wondered, and we gathered up all the magnets, and piled them up on one of the motors. We had to tape them together, because the similar poles repelled each other. This did cause the motor to run a little faster, but not that much.
"What we need is more current!", someone suggested, so we gathered up all the batteries, and connected them in parallel across the terminals of a single motor. Again, it sped up a bit, but not a lot, although we noted that some of the batteries got a bit warm.
It was apparently Fred Lehrer who suggested that the students needed to connect the batteries in series, to increase the voltage. He had been a ham radio operator at 15, and had taken an electronics course. The batteries were re-wired, and that produced the desired effect. The motor ran at an impressively high speed, started screaming, and eventually smoke poured out of its primitive bearings. The students were delighted, and I'd never seen them so animated. I doubt if Mr. Lusch found out we had burned out one of his motors until that lab was repeated the following year.
So in fact the students turned out to be natural-born scientists, eager to experiment with the motors and to see what worked and what didn't, once they were freed from the constraints of the curriculum. It's a shame that Mr. Lusch wasn't able to tap into this innate curiosity and energy.
Again from Fred Lehrer: "I also remember when we decided to stop the experiment. When I went to remove a wire from the screw-on battery terminal, I burned myself on the hot wire! Hadn't thought about that side effect. We were really pumping some juice through that motor. Those were cool big screw-on Eveready batteries! I've got a picture of me at my radio station with one of them standing on a table." (Click here to see the picture Fred sent.)
And now, from memory, the Great Neck High School song (from before North and South split):
How's that? Mr. Lusch would be proud of me. I still remember the classical physics, too. Physics was pretty neat, until quantum mechanics came along and ruined it (just ask Einstein).
Note 1: Among my parents' effects, I recently found a letter from the school (click that link to see it) giving me permission to take physics in my junior year, signed by the Chief Guidance Counselor, C. Everett Woodman. [return to text]
Note 2: Zorro was on our minds in 1958 due to a half-hour television series, which had started the year before, starring Guy Williams as Zorro. The word "zorro", by the way, means "fox" in Spanish. Actually, you probably don't need to be all that old to remember Zorro, as the character continues to reappear from time to time on television, in films, and in video games. [return to text]