02 February 2010

Happy Groundhog Day!

And it's also Mr. Holbrook's birthday!

Yoonjoo's cartoon from three years ago

As a commemoration, the math team parents have bought enough donuts for all students, teachers, and staff! (donuts are a staple food of the AAST Math Team) Even though I knew about this a week ago, I was still plenty shocked to see several math team parents behind boxes and boxes of donuts this morning happily handing out Boston Cremes or chocolate covered toruses.

Donuts, Donuts, Donuts, DONUTS!!11!

In addition to doughnuts, Mark and Pavel helped distribute #1 stickers as a tribute to the gold #1 pendant  Mr. Holbrook always proudly wears around his neck.


I thought this was a very fitting tribute for Mr. Holbrook, in addition to all of the other ceremonies and events that we have held. To actually qualify how much he had affected each and every one of us, here are some posts from the RIP Mr. Holbrook group:
"I just happened to ask Joe about his "life story" a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I'd share what I learned with everyone. Joe told me how he had grown up on a tobacco farm in Kentucky and had graduated from college at a very young age (I think he said 17??). He then joined the armed forces and - being fluent in four languages - was stationed in Germany as a "translator."

By the time he was 19 he had married a young German woman and by the time he was 21 he had two daughters. His marriage didn't last and he ended up coming back to the U.S. without his daughters. He told me he missed them but knew it was best for them to be in Germany with his ex-wife and her extended family.

Joe told me he had other love interests over the years, but never considered remarrying or having more children. Really, he found his true love when he started to teach. He taught at a number of schools over the years, and only took a short break from teaching, to take a job at a firm that developed educational software, so that he could save up money to send his two daughters to medical school. Once they were both admitted to med school in Germany, which is apparently free, he quickly returned to teaching.

One of his daughters is a heart surgeon in South Africa and the other is a doctor in Germany with a few kids of her own. Joe saw his daughters and grandchildren periodically through the years, but he never lived in the same country as them.

At first Joe's story seemed so sad to me. Even though my son is only 20 months old, my life already revolves around him, and the rest of my family. I can't imagine living apart from any of them. But then I remembered what I had really known all along - Joe's life revolved around BCA. His family was his colleagues and his children were his many students. He talked about his students like a father would talk about his children - chuckling a little when he told a story about a student who had done something cute or even a little mischievous, referring to almost everyone as "beautiful" and above all bragging, like any proud father, about their intelligence, talent, hard work, many many successes, and amazing potential.

It's hard to imagine a teacher who is more dedicated than Joe was, and equally hard to imagine a teacher who enjoys their job as much as Joe did. Joe is a part of BCA, and it's almost impossible to imagine the place without him." -- C.Heitzman
"Of all the memories I have of Mr. Holbrook, one incident stands out in my mind that I think truly represents his determination. During my sophomore year, HMMT was scheduled during the February break. It had snowed heavily the night before the trip, and so the trip was cancelled. Instead of giving up on the competiti...on, Mr. Holbrook gathered together a group of students and parents who were willing to make the trip up to Massachusetts. In only a couple hours, he managed to recruit enough students to send two teams up to HMMT. Even then, he didn't stop, and a third team ended up competing remotely from the school. Mr. Holbrook did everything in his power to ensure that we, his students, would have the opportunity to compete. He always looked out for us, no matter what. We'll miss you, Mr. Holbrook." -- I.Osborn
"When I was in 7th grade, and my dad was late picking me up from math team, Mr. Holbrook waited in the parking lot for over an hour until he arrived.

When I was in 10th grade and I didn't feel like going to ARML, Mr. Holbrook called me into his classroom and asked me why my name wasn't on his list. He sat with me for twenty minutes and finally convinced me to go. It was an amazing trip (and I'm pretty sure we did really well that year).

When my friend and I got into an argument with another student, Mr. Holbrook listened to us and gave us advice, instead of handing out pointless punishments.

He was always deeply concerned when one of his students didn't make the AIME and he always made sure it didn't happen again.

I met some of my life-long friends in Mr. Holbrook's math team.

He took above-average students and taught them to be extraordinary.

He showed us that problem-solving was an art."

-- E.Hamberger
"Mr. Holbrook left an indelible mark on a countless number of us through both his teaching and guidance. He selflessly devoted himself to running the math team, spending hours on end holding weekend practices, ordering new textbooks to help us learn, taking us to competitions all over the country, and teaching any student willing to learn. He also concerned himself deeply in our futures, pushing us to strive for greater achievements, advising underclassmen about college, and drafting brilliant recommendations for the seniors.

Mr. Holbrook was not just a dedicated teacher, but also an all-round brilliant person. He had a great memory, instantly remembering the name of any new student. He shared some of his vast knowledge and life experience with us, and was keen to see us mature not only mentally but also emotionally. The most memorable aspect of Mr. Holbrook was his brilliant sense of humor. He was very self-deprecating, and had the ability to make us laugh almost at will, lightening the mood on many a day and practice.
You’re truly the greatest teacher, mentor, and human being I have ever known, an opinion shared by my parents. I will miss you greatly Mr. Holbrook, and am sad that future students will not be able to benefit from the same teaching and guidance that has helped so many of us." -- J.Feng
"Joe Holbrook was a good friend of mine since I met him in 1981 or 1982. He was the Director of Math for the Freeport, LI, schools, the president of the Nassau County math league, and the coach of the county's all-star math team, which included 2 of my mathletes. One of his Freeport teams came in first in the US in the AMC-12 competition. His absolute dedication to the kids impressed me. He retired but returned to teaching at BCA. I'd see him at ARML and NYSML, and we'd get together regularly for dinner. The last time I saw him was December 24 for lunch. He spoke about all his arrangements for upcoming trips for his team to compete on the highest levels at top-level colleges. I visited his new apartment (16H) and saw that his priceless art collection was already displayed. He was warm and supportive and I shall miss him." -- R.Kalman
"I was stunned when I heard the news that Joe had passed away. As the head coach of both the NYC math team and the Stuyvesant Math Team, I had always thought of Joe as a constant--someone who would always be there. His dedication to the students of AAST's math team over the years is humbling to say the least. Year in and year out he was able to develop the students of AAST into world class math talents thought his guidance, his love of math, and his love of teaching. I have always looked at the successes of AAST as a source of inspiration for me and my students. Joe always set the bar high for his students and for the team. As a result, he set the bar high for us as well. On behalf of the students and coaches of the Stuyvesant math team and of the New York City math team, I offer my heartfelt condolences to Joe's family, friends and to the students of AAST past and present. You will never be forgotten." -- J.Cocoros
"I'd known him for almost 15 years, all the way back to Non-Routine Problem Solving. He was a great teacher and a great mentor. I'll miss him." -- J.Pinyan
"My mentor, my teacher, and my friend - how can I ever repay you for all you've done for me?" -- J.Bae 
Mark's letter to the math team:
Dear Friends,

Mr. Holbrook was a landmark figure in our school precisely because he touched each student in a unique way.  To the math team novices and occasional members, he was always a source of encouragement and optimism, reminding them each day that they are capable of learning whatever they set their minds to.  To the math team regulars, he was like a family member, full of good advice and always proud of our accomplishments (mathematical or otherwise).  For everyone, he was the teacher always willing to go an extra mile, working late on weekdays and staying through weekends.

One purpose of this email is to share my own thoughts about Mr. Holbrook and the future of the math team, which is a natural question to ask in light of his passing.  Primarily, I want to emphasize that Mr. Holbrook saw math team and math competitions as a whole lot more than just winning.

In the past, several math team captains (me included) have tried to implement ranking systems to determine how to put together official teams optimally.  All the other teams I know (ex. Lehigh, NYC) have selection tests to determine who will be on the top team, the second team, etc.  When past math team captains and I suggested such a system, he immediately vetoed it.  He would rather foster friendships and teamwork than have everyone fighting each other for a spot on the top team (even if it meant sacrificing a few points).

In addition to all that, you may have noticed that very few teams bring more than 20 students to math competitions, while we often bring over 100.  Mr. Holbrook knew that it made him stand out when his team arrived in three large busses, but he refused to restrict the fun and excitement of competitions to a select group of kids.  His philosophy was “If you want to be a part of Math Team, you are a part of Math Team.” Think about that when you’re flying to Stanford.

With all that in mind, I want to say, in all sincerity, that we do not “owe” Mr. Holbrook a victory as a “final gift.” That is not what he would want us to strive for.  Rather, he would want us to uphold the three core ideologies that made math team what it is: teamwork, friendship, and, above all, openness/accessibility.  Winning was never his top priority nor should it be ours.

Logistically, math team leadership will change slightly as several teachers and parents take a more central role, but, so long as Mr. Holbrook’s core ideologies are not abandoned, the BCA math team will continue in spirit and form

On a personal note, his glowing sense of humor, his insistence that I eat (or date) various items of food, and the perpetual safe haven offered by his room will be forever missed (among many, many other things).  Perhaps when some of the shock has cleared in a few weeks, we can see if the math teachers will consider holding their ACE hours in that room to keep it as open to students as it had always been.  I agree that BCA will never be the same, but we will certainly strive to keep as many of his landmark programs alive as possible.


Mark Velednitsky
AAST Math Team Captain
And here is my tribute:
"When I first happily skipped down the halls of the Bergen County Academies for Math Camp, I was first introduced to Mr. Holbrook, the instructor and camp director. I was still new to Bergen County and did not know anyone at that time, so he became the first arm of support and continued to support me through my high school career both educationally and emotionally. 

Not long into the first week did Mr. Holbrook seek me out as a rising math jedi. My outstanding performance on the first weekly diagnostic test convinced him that I was a potential core member for the math team, which made me feel acknowledged by and welcomed by the math team and the school. To prepare me for competitions, he sent me home with three contest strategy book and two olympiad packets from past years. I was delighted that he wanted me for his team and eagerly worked through the books over the summer.

I still hadn't made any close friends before freshman year started, mainly because the opportunities we had were too short and I didn't meet anyone with similar interests. Still shy of the unknown world, I stayed in Mr. Holbrook's comforting world of math where I had an unlimited supply of math books and delicious hard candy. I figured that I could improve my math and meet people with similar interests. Through diligently working with my classmates and upperclassmen, I rapidly expanded my network of friends, increased my mathematics skill set, and increased my value as a mathlete in Mr. Holbrook's eyes.

My hard work paid off at the end of freshman year. For our annual All-Stars math competition, I was promoted from the freshmen team to the second flagship team. I was happy that Mr. Holbrook saw me as a core member and he was happy with my contribution at the competition. With this encouragement, I continued to work during my sophomore year and was the only female placed on the flagship team for that year's All-Star competition. Even though I had reached the highest standing for an AAST Math Team member, I did not stop training because I knew that I could produce more. Mr. Holbrook, too, saw untapped potential in me, so he sent me to a math camp in Texas that summer to train. 

With my augmented knowledge and experience, I stood out in not only the team events, but also individual events of prestigious math competitions. I placed in the Duke Math Meet, Math Prize for Girls, and the Princeton Math Competition, which was very difficult. Also, by this time, I realized that I was competing not to win the competitions (of course winning would be awesome), but for making Mr. Holbrook happy and proud of us. Training and competing with this ideology, I was able to score higher on contests and was more satisfied with my performance because of more reasonable expectations. As one of the few people to realize that we are competing not for ourselves, but for the team and the school, I was appointed captain for the following year's Math Team."
Again, thank you for all you've done for the school, the team, and each and every one of your thousands of students. May you rest in peace.

Joe Ivan Holbrook
02 February 1937 - 22 January 2010