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Five People Who Made A Difference. . .To Me (#4 The Student)

March 10, 2015

He got a B in college ballet. Luther was the only person I knew since my friend Mark’s parents made him take lessons as a kid who even did ballet. Did? Danced? Took? It’s so far out of my realm of experience that I don’t even know the proper verbs. Ballet was quite a ways outside of Luther’s realm of experience as well. How Luther ended up in a college ballet class without ever having taken dance is part of the reason that he’s one of the people who made a difference to me. 

Luther and I met at Brigham Young University in the Computer Science department. He was a brilliant undergrad on track for a steller career in theoretical computer science, I was a middle aged guy trying to go back to finish my degree. 

I’d left Microsoft the previous year and decided that now was a great time to go back and finish my CS degree. I had a chunk of money, not as much as I had before the market tanked, but still enough that I thought with a little skimping at home and a serious approach at school, it would be enough to see me through to graduation. 

From the time I was a kid I’ve been told that I was smart. But, smart without discipline is not a recipe for success. My high school friends were honor roll students. I was a bottom-third of my graduating class guy. My first time through school had been fun, but chaotic. I started as an Electrical Engineering major in the honors program. My test scores were good enough to get me that. Honors lasted exactly one semester. I stayed with EE until I hit the 300 level math courses. Linear algebra did me in. I switched to Computer Science. 

I did okay thanks to a very patient roommate who was also a CS major, and thanks to a very pretty girl who helped me with my final project. We’ve been together for 27 years, so I don’t count my time in CS142 as a total loss. I even joined the ROTC for a semester. Finally, I left to go to work for a little computer company called WordPerfect. 

I hate losing. 

I felt like I’d lost something by leaving school early. I always wanted to go back. Fall of 2004 was my shot. By now, I’d had a career. Five years at WordPerfect led to nearly ten at Microsoft. I understood how to get things done. And most importantly I’d learned to stick it out and finish. 

As we moved to Orem, UT and I started back to school, my very first goal was to find a study partner or a tutor. I found Luther. Since I was closer in age to my professors than the other students, I asked one of them if they could recommend someone. Luther’s name came up. And it turned out we had multiple classes together. 

It was a perfect setup. What I found out right away was that I shouldn’t attempt to keep up with Luther. He was going to run at clock speeds that would burn me out. However, I also realized I didn’t have to. It was fun to watch him devour concepts and lectures. Rarely did I have my program done before his. It was a good thing to. Much of the grading was automated. You submitted your program to a grader application and it checked to make sure you did it right. The grader app wasn’t always 100% accurate. Luther would finish first and then help the TAs debug their grader.

And he would help me. 

I’m not sure what benefit that Luther got out of our relationship. And maybe it’s crass of me to consider a friendship in terms of what each person gains. I hope that I helped him, because it would be a shame for him to have helped me as much as he did and not gotten anything back. 

Luther was a geek. He was a geek’s geek. He was doing original research on mathmatical implications of multidimensional spaces, or something like that. I could barely comprehend it and he was doing it for fun. It wasn’t even the field he was interested in. I don’t remember him ever being impatient. And he had plenty of opportunities. He was the sharpest tack in the box, I wasn’t even close. 

But, I had committed to myself that I was going to focus and work hard this semester. And I did. I did all the reading before class. I sat near the front. (That’s where Luther preferred sitting as well.) I did the assignments early. I even had a hard drive crash in the middle of the semester and managed to not get thrown off track. 

I studied for the tests. Luther didn’t. I couldn’t understand it. When the first test came around I asked,

So, do you want to get together and study for the test?

Not really.

What do you mean? You aren’t going to study for it?

I’ll help you study if you want. I don’t really study for tests. I learn the concept during the lectures. If I learn it well enough, I should know it for the test.

I’d never heard of such a thing. But, it was true. He really was that smart. We finished the semester both with straight A’s. It was the first time in my life I’d ever managed that. Had I taken one additional credit I would have made the dean’s list. 

Luther taught me how to learn. 

But, that’s not why he is one of the five people I picked who have made a difference. The next semester was the semester that Luther took ballet. He never really explained why he chose to fulfill a PE requirement with a ballet class. But, I think I know. Luther lived in the CS labs. Between classes, being a TA, doing research and tutoring me for free, his entire day was involved with computers. 

There is more to life than computers. For one thing, there are not a lot of girls in Computer Science, my lovely wife not withstanding. 

Do you know where there are a lot of girls? Yeah, ballet. Or just PE classes in general. Luther attacked ballet like he did everything else. He threw himself into it. The change in him was remarkable that semester. He was still a geek, but he was also someone who was embracing life. I took “safe” PE classes: Basketball, raquetball, swimming. Luther never really was the play-it-safe type guy. Shortly before the end of the semester he told me about a conversation he had with his instructor.

You’ve really worked hard this semester. I think you will finish with a B+. That shouldn’t hurt your GPA too much.

No, not too much.

You didn’t tell him?

Tell him what?

About your GPA?

No. It never came up.

Doesn’t it bother you at all?

Why should it?

Why indeed? Luther was junior and had a perfect 4.0 GPA. The ballet B+ wasn’t just going to hurt his GPA it was going to destroy perfection.

Luther didn’t see it that way. He had a specific reason for taking ballet and it wasn’t to maintain his perfect GPA. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. And it has stuck with me. He wasn’t there for the grade, he was there to learn, to experience, to do new things. 

I’ve often thought  about those couple of semesters and the lessons that Luther taught me. I ended up spending my schoool money to adopt three girls from Colombia. Luther went on to a brilliant career in Computer Sciene. But, for just a little while, I got to experience what it was like to be both the smart kid and a good student. I thank Luther Tychonievich for that. 


Luther Tychonievich is a full time lectureer in Computer Science at the University of Virginia. 

the end

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