Gordon Bell Mathematics
September 22, 1945 – November 17, 2023
by Dennis Bayomi, GB’77
With a heavy heart, we announce the passing of Mr. Barsby, award-winning Mathematics teacher (GB 1970-75) and noted coach of Reach for the Top and Math competitions.
John’s impact on my lifelong love for Math was immense, even though I didn’t actually take an “official” Math course from John. It was primarily through the weekly “Math Club” sessions that he organized, where we’d prepare for the provincial Math competitions, by which I learned so much from John. We’d try our hand at previous years’ contests and present our solutions at the next session. The elegance and simplicity of solutions he’d present often left me dazed and amazed. Even more, seeing how John beamed at solutions presented by current and former students was equally inspiring. Mentions of earlier-year icons of GB’s Math pantheon – the Ngs, Leslies, Greens, Ellises – would immediately draw our attention!
And most of all, learning and observing on the sidelines at Reach for the Top practices was priceless. John’s precision calling out of “Who/What am I”, “Scramble” and “Short Snapper” questions frequently came with valuable tips and colorful sidebar stories. Little wonder GB had not one but two provincial RFTT championships, in 1974 and 1975 (https://gb100.ca/gb-notable-events/scholastic/).
Although I was devastated when John told me in Grade 10 that he would be taking a position at SJR the following school year, I still felt that I had received an invaluable education from John and enjoyed the benefits of his work at GB in my final two years, including calculus in Grade 12. And as we followed his career at SJR, we weren’t surprised that John would continue to make his mark, as one of Canada’s premier Mathematics teachers.
In recent years, I was extremly fortunate to reconnect with John, inviting him to our GB Reconnect events in 2016 and 2017. In 2017, we staged an RFTT of our own, featuring GB-related questions (written by yours truly), read by our very own quizmaster, Mr. B, with most of the alumni in attendance taking turns as contestants. Since the pandemic, I had the privilege of visiting John at his home and still continue to enjoy working through his collection of Math contest problems that he gave me.
In November 2022, John treated some of us former students to a virtual reading of his new book “Fifty Years in the Classroom” (http://johnbarsby.ca), bringing together students he hadn’t seen in decades. John remarked how much he thoroughly enjoyed the get-together, a wonderful reunion indeed.
I’m sure that I speak for most – if not all – of John’s students when I say we were so very grateful to have had Mr. B as our teacher, mentor and friend. His five years at GB seemed much longer, given the impact he had on so many of us. Thank you John, thank you, infinitely.
Memorial hosted at SJR on December 3, 2023:
Memories from Students:
Fern (Zamick) Carr GB ’74 — News of John’s passing is so sad and surreal. He was not only my wonderful GB math/calculus teacher, Reach for the Top and math contest coach, but also a valued friend of over 50 years.
I still fondly reminisce about our team’s RFTT trips with John – one, to Dryden ON for a tournament and the other, to St. John’s NL for the Nationals along with fellow coach Sheila Calof.
Those who knew John might take solace in his joy for having received well-deserved acclaim for his book, “Fifty Years in the Classroom and What I Learned There”.
A humble, dedicated, and brilliant man – may he rest in peace.
Bill Leslie GB ’74 — “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Henry B. Adams
I hope this statement is true and that John has touched the infinite, since that is what he deserves.
I was privileged to have been one of the many beneficiaries of John’s inspirational teaching. I was nurtured through 3 years of math classes, math club and math contests — and regaled with anecdotes from John’s prodigious trove of hilarious experiences and eccentric math professors that John encountered as a student at the University of Manitoba. John found the math spark and lit a fire that allowed so many to excel. And he was thrilled whenever one of us would find a new solution that he had not considered — attacking geometry with algebra, solving an algebra problem with straight-edge and compass constructions from Euclid — it all added to the fun. The days of math contests may be long past, but we carry that feeling and the love of math to this very day. I remain a sucker for a YouTube episode of Mathologer, and got a rush after learning that Fermat’s Last Theorem had finally been solved! John showed us the beauty in math and in mathematical thinking — and he had a beautiful mind for teaching it.
But John Barsby was so much more than just a great math teacher. His knowledge was eclectic and his memory prodigious, quoting long tracts from The Hunting of the Snark or from Yeats with equal facility. How could anyone not be inspired in a love of literature and poetry? Indeed, he was torn between pursuing a career in English or math. And although he chose the latter, it was always clear that he never lost his love of a good book (especially if it could be found at a garage sale or the Children’s book mart). With so much to draw from, no wonder RFTT rollicked from the serious to the silly and back again.
I have often felt that those years at GB were my happiest years. In no small measure I attribute that to John Barsby, the strong sense of camaraderie that he created, and the love of life and learning that is with me still. He had quiet greatness — qualities that are insufficiently recognized or celebrated. No words of gratitude can equal the gift of what I received from having had John as teacher, mentor and friend.
Shirley Lowe GB ’74 — John was deeply dedicated as a teacher, coach and mentor. The successful outcomes in math competitions and Reach for the Top are testaments to his personal connections with his students.
John was also a life-long friend. Over the years, a few of us and John would get together over a meal. He always looked forward to the mini-reunions with his former students; in this case, it was the RFTT alumni from 1973 and 1974.
There was a fun and light-hearted side to John. During our train ride to a RFTT tournament in Dryden, ON, he taught us a word game called “Higgledy-Piggledy.” Let’s say he was very lenient with us.
As well, John and I shared Foxtrot comics (there was always a storyline about Pi) when I sent out the annual Pi Day greetings to him. Only my math teacher would understand my doing this.
John had a passion for teaching, learning, laughter and life. We will miss him.
Bert Mueller GB ’74 — I have had many great teachers and mentors over the years but John is my most memorable and inspiring. Maybe that is because he was the best, maybe because he played such an important role during my formative years. It’s hard to know. Nevertheless, I will never forget him. To this day I am still amazed at the usefulness and beauty of mathematics and John is largely responsible for that.
Marty Green GB ’74 — For three years in a row, Thursday afternoons were the absolute high point of my week. That of course was Math Club. At the end of math club, John (“Mr. Barsby”) would hand out next week’s problem set, and I would jealously guard them with eager anticipation until the following Thursday afternoon, whereupon I would finally open them up after lunch, so I would have the added excitement and pressure of knowing I only had a few hours left to solve them. It was a special occasion when Day Five of the six-day cycle would fall on a Thursday, because then I would have a whole Double English class to work on my math problems. It was especially satisfying when I could come to math club with a solution different from what Mr. Barsby would present. I became known for showing geometric solutions to problems that others would do algebraically.
Then, towards the end of Grade 11, I realized I hadn’t bothered to work ahead on the actual math curriculum, and ten of my friends and RFTT cohort were going to be taking calculus without me. So I registered for summer school at St. John’s High with Mr. Dmytryshyn, and got my Grade 12 so I could join the calculus team. This paid huge dividends four years down the road when I went into first-year Engineering with an enormous head start. As for the course itself, I don’t remember an awful lot except searching in vain for an intuitive explanation for the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus (which shows that differentiation and integration are inverse operations.) Don’t know why I couldn’t see it then, but it dawned on me a few years later when I took Electromagnetic Theory and we learned Gauss’s Theorem: that the divergence integrated over the volume is equal to the flux integrated over the surface. I could see right away that this made intuitive sense, and then I realized that in a way it was very much a 3-dimensional version of the Fundamental Theorem.
But my brother-in-law Peter has the best stories of Calculus with Mr. Barsby, expecially the intense preparation period for the U of W exam. We were all prepared to do a proof of the Fundamental Theorem in case it was asked for on the exam, and Peter likes to recall that one of our classmates (name withheld) actually (and proudly!) memorized the proof as … a literal string of symbols, not even attempting to understand what they meant. And then Peter likes to recall the moment where Mr. Barsby confided that he feared that one of our class was studying TOO hard for the finals and was in danger of …”peaking too early”!
University was terribly frustrating because no professors, with one or two exceptions, brought anywhere near the love of their subject and clarity of exposition that I had taken for granted up til then. Even more frustrating was that there was no forum for me to show how math could be done like it should. The end result was my decision to create Math with Marty, which my friend Neil and I started on Community Access TV in 1989. The show gained instant traction, partly because in those days your remote control would skip through all 13 channels to reach its destination, so you couldn’t help catching a glimpse of MWM which made people stop and say wha….??? It wasn’t long before we invited Mr. Barsby to join us as a guest, probably once a month. I’ll never forget the first time he did a problem on TV (it was Eratosthenes calculation of the circumference of the earth). John introduced the problem, casually said he would write the name of Eratosthenes on the board, and then proceeded to spell out: “eta, rho, alpha, tau, omega…”. It was hilarious, and so understated. Beautiful. And then the actual math…well, we were on the edges of our seats the whole time. We were in the presence of the master, and there was no doubt.
After taping out shows, the three of us (Neil, Mr Barsby and myself) would often go back to John’s place and stop on the way at a 7-11 to pick up a Deep and Delicious marble cake. We’d put on a pot of tea and then cut the cake crosswise into four pieces. Each of us would take one. When we were done, we’d cut the remaining piece in four, and each take one. And so on and so fourth. There’s some interesting math right there. You won’t find a more physical proof for the sum of the infinite series of powers of 1/4 adding up to one third. One cake, three people.
When I was 55 years old I made the best decision of my life. I decided to finish off my working career by going back and getting my teaching certificate. Unfortunately, the professors didn’t like me, and kicked me out of the program after only nine weeks. I took them to court, and have been getting the shit kicked out of me for the last 12 years by the judicial system. But that’s another story (and it’s not quite over just yet). WHY did they kick me out? Not because of the absurd crap they accused me of, things like home invasions and death threats. No, those were just excuses to get rid of me. You could say I was a bit of a smart-ass, or that I thought I was smarter than my profs. What did I actually do? An example of what got me in trouble actually has some resonance with Mr. Barsby, so I’ll tell the story here.
In Philosophy of Education, a professor asked rhetorically, “what is the goal of education?”. And then he proceeded to explain that it’s not some airy-fairy stuff about “understanding” and “insight”. The goal is to teach the students an actual, demonstrable concrete skill. I put up my hand and said I disagree. That I want to be a teacher because I want to be there for the moment a light bulb turns on inside the student’s head, and he actually knows what it means to understand something. I held the floor for all of 30 seconds and then sat down. The prof ignored my comments and continued as if I weren’t even there. Oh, they hated me alright.
I told this story to John, and he replied that this was exactly the kind of philosophical thinking that had been universally adopted by the professional Curriculum Design authorities, of which he was a sometime consultant. He said that whenever he wanted to propose some aspect of curriculum design, he had to be very careful to couch it in terms of concrete demonstrable outcomes, and to avoid at all costs the notion of “understanding” as being any kind of positive factor.
I am proud to have known John, and especially proud that I am responsible for sharing his unique talents with the world through Math with Marty. I will find some links to some of John’s episodes and send them on to Dennis so he can post them on his site.