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Somers High School Physics Teacher Left the Challenge up to Us

Richard “Merv” Gerfin set up the game and we played it.

Mr. Gerfin and his daughter Lyn

By late June 1982, my immediate future was in place.  I was going to Plattsburgh State and computer science would be my major.  But I still had some unfinished business, and as I tentatively wondered down the hall to get my physics regents results, much was at stake.  I knew I did well. But there was no way that a passing grade could compute against the quarterly grades I had received.  Still, I knew passing was in play.  The real question was whether "Merv" was going to give in or declare himself the winner of the game we were playing since September. 

I first heard of Mr. (Richard) Gerfin in 8th grade, but I didn't actually make the connection to his nickname until much later. (Merv Gerfin).  At the time, my brother had Mr. Gerfin for physics at Somers High School. A science/math genius, my brother often came home with stories of competing wills that matched wits with this out of the box teacher.

The stories definitely got my attention but physics was still a long way off.  I must have seen Merv walking around the school, and while I never interacted with him, I honed my own wits in anticipation of our inevitable showdown.

The Pregame

But by the time I got there, it’s reasonable to assume that the stakes must have lessened by my career choice. Nope, I was eager and ready to go head to head.

Of course, Merv remembered my brother and probably expected an intellectual ability on a similar level. In truth, I had settled (and suffered) into the idea that I could not even come close to competing with my brother.

On the other hand, there was no way that I was going to let my brother’s legacy outdo my ability to go toe-to-toe as a class clown.  So even before Merv put his competitive agenda in motion, the game was already afoot in my case.

Nonetheless, this is something that I never actually thought about. I recently connected with his daughter on Facebook and finally put my reflection into actual words.

We go head-to-head.

So as not to confuse, this game shouldn’t be confused with pitting students against each other. I would have found that abhorrent and irresponsible.

Yes, we were competing against him. Merv’s instruction played like a theory he was trying to prove to us. You’re a bunch of knuckleheads, and there’s no way you can pass physics.

Never said in words, the approach wasn’t going to be found in any educational desertions either. We reaped the benefits nonetheless.

In other words, we were dialed-in and were compelled to prove him wrong.

More importantly, Merv was giving us our first whiff of adulthood. We learned that some teacher wasn't going to be there to hold your hand in the real world and make everything better.

Applying Merv’s theory and putting it into practice, I was very proud to put up a 70 and a 64 in the first two quarters.

Winning in my mind, Merv still made sure we knew who was boss. On our first test, he took five points off one of my answers. This despite that fact that I posted the correct answer.

The red ink read, “-5, D.A.”

Of course, the question quickly came: “What the hell is D.A.”

His reply: It stands for Dumb Ass.

In actuality, the initials stood for Dimensional Analysis. I provided a numerical figure without the unit of measurement. A seemingly minor point. But we soon learned that following the units of measurements actually leads to the answer.

I start to lose.

However, the six point drop off had its roots elsewhere. As a Wrestler, spending three hours a day practicing, I just couldn’t keep up. The results were easy enough to spot.

And after one of the tests, Merv aired it out. “I know the test was hard, but there’s no excuse for a (pre-curve) grade of a 9 or a 10.” I had the 9 and Bill Miller had the 10. Neither of us really minded being singled out with sarcasm.

On the other hand, I didn’t take kindly to receiving a 38 for the third quarter. I was even madder when my guidance counselor told me that Manhattan College might rescind my acceptance as a result. But my anger was an over-dramatization. Manhattan accepted me as a commuting student, and there was no way I was doing that.

Still, the drama was met in kind by Merv. He thought I should have been doing better and wasn't afraid to show some ire. But I did not let on that wrestling was the cause of the stark fall off.

In It to Win It

But once wrestling ending, I was able to reengage and went full tilt. I was going to finish the game and win it.

No matter the resolve though, the math stated above didn’t lend itself to a passing grade. Of course, those at the bottom of the curve did get a sense that a good Regents grade might make full amends.

At the same time, Merv wasn't afraid to play the final set up. He always railed against the State Regents as minimum competency tests.

I went to work anyway, and he was absolutely right about the lacking rigors of the test. But who am I to argue with the state. The posting outside his office said 85 on the regents and 66 for the year.

I wagged my finger in approval and gave my mentor an “ehhhh Merv" to signal my victory.

He also seemed quite pleased with himself. It was clear that we both had won.

I was now ready for the real challenge at Plattsburgh.

I visited Merv once during my freshman year, but that was the last time I saw him. Mr. Gerfin died of cancer in 1985. The loss to the school and his family cannot be measured, but I count myself luckily to have been up to his challenge.

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