Perhaps We Saved One

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To answer a frequently asked question ...

This is not my usual type of post. Usually my posts are strictly about maths, or about my adventures as I travel around, or some sort of oddities I encounter. This is different, and it is my intention that this is a rare occurrence. However, it does answer a question that's asked reasonably often, so I thought it deserved its place.
Perhaps the question isn't asked all that frequently, but I do get the sense sometimes that the question is there, and they are simply too polite to voice it. The question is:

Why do you do
so many talks?

Many years ago a good friend of mine, Bill Mullarkey, organised a "Science and Technology Extravaganza" in Wigan. It was a fabulous two-day event with hundreds of teenagers and adults in attendance. The buzz of excitement was huge, and it was an honour to be part of the whole thing.

Afterwards, Bill wrote to me to say thank you. I was expecting the usual sort of thing, but this one was different. The actual letter is currently filed away with some other papers while we (all too slowly) work on the house, but the general contents come easily to mind. I will never forget what Bill said, and the story he told, and this provides the answer.

Broadly, the letter opened with a thank you, and some figures about the number of people we'd had coming through. The event had by all measures and accounts been a huge success, which was great.

Then it went on with a particular story ...

There was one lad who'd come, reluctantly, with his grandad. He'd been persuaded to come just for the morning, but had stayed for the whole day, only leaving when the venue was finally closed. On the way home, the lad was unusually quiet, including when they stopped off on the way to have dinner.

His parents and grandad had, of late, been rather worried about him. Arriving home from school each day he would dump his bags and be out on his bike with his friends, returning, it seemed, later and later each time. They were happy that he had friends and was socialising, but worried about his school-work, and more worried about the choice of friends.

Upon arriving home from the event, though, he didn't go out on his bike, but instead went straight to his room, and wasn't seen again until much later. He came out, and said he wanted to have a talk. He said that he'd loved the day, and had decided he wanted to be a scientist. He'd talked to some of the speakers and presenters, and they'd all said the same thing - you can do it, and it's brilliant, but you'll have to work hard, and especially, you'll have to get good grades in your maths.

He went on, "I know I haven't been working hard at school, and my grades have been slipping. Could we get some tutoring?"

His father was taken aback, paused, and said yes, probably, if he wanted to. But it could be expensive.

The grandad had to leave the room to recover his composure when he heard the reply.

"I've been thinking about that. Maybe we could sell my bike."

Bill closed the letter by saying that when he started planning the event he had said - only half jokingly - that he would regard it as a success if we saved one child from a career in accountancy, but who knows. Maybe, just maybe, we'd saved one from the scrapheap.

That makes it worth it.

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