This blog post is about a very amazing teacher of mine from high school, Maria Plachta, who unfortunately passed away on April 29 due to leukemia, at the age of 55. This post has a little bit of history and some words on why she was so frigging awesome.
I first met Mrs P in 1997 in grade 10. It was kind of random, I believe I was talking to my friend Peter Park about some kind of programming problem he was working on, near the end of the school year. I think it was related to number theory? This got me to talk to Mrs P about joining her programming course the following year and her Programming Enrichment Group (PEG). I don’t know the exact history of the club but they existed at least as early as 1993, and I think I was once told it was driven by student interest at the very start, including her older son Peter.
Part of the time that I was involved in PEG as a student, it survived several Ontario teachers’ strikes in the late 1990s. (I seem to recall that Mrs P basically continued to run the club on the down-low at these times, but I don’t remember for sure.) The primary activity was meeting a couple of times per week to do enrichment activities, more or less revolving around the material that would be useful in competitions: CCC, ACSL, ECOO, USACO. For several years she held a programming practice (a qualifier contest in preparation for ECOO) at her own house. Secondarily, we actually competed in these contests. The annual ACSL trip, about a week long, was variously filled with trips to Denny’s, enough jokes to make your abdomen sore, hikes that Mrs P would organize, lots of card games, and discussion. I stayed involved with PEG after graduating from high school and have been back as a tutor/chaperone, and I’ll be going on I think my 9th or 10th Woburn ACSL trip later this month.
A number of other people have also been involved with the educational aspects, and a huge number of people have stayed socially involved as PEG alumni. This is largely because Mrs P encouraged people in not just the technical setting, but more broadly in all aspects of life. She encouraged people to come out and socialize in both big groups (xmas holiday gatherings at her family’s house, annual PEG barbecues) and small groups (visiting years after graduation to play cards or just catch up). Fundraising efforts by the group also led to strengthen the bonds of friendship between her and her students, but also between the students themselves. I can’t count how many good friends I feel very close to as a result of my involvement in her club.
It would take me a long time to list all of the computer science awards that Woburn PEG students have won over the years. Some are listed on the PEG website. The club evolved constantly: PEG hosted a local programming contest on behalf of the school, The Woburn Challenge, from 1995 to 2002; starting in the early 00s she invited grade 5-8 students from nearby Churchill Heights to learn and participate; she headhunted a teacher from the math department who helps run the fundraising (PEG Store) and trips (which now involve more than a dozen students, thanks to our Juniors). All along, she has used excellent judgement in getting her own students to teach when appropriate, which I believe strongly builds scholarship.
Mrs P had a strong sense of interdisciplinary learning, both professionally and personally. She originally taught physics, then programming, and she recently designed a new course called Scientific Approach To The Meaning of It All, which included philosophical and scientific topics. She herself was interested in painting, music, food, travel, the outdoors, all of the good stuff that to me makes life worth living, but she was also highly reflective and self-critical.
More than anything else the word I would use to describe Mrs P is dedicated. As a high school student I only noticed this casually. But with my being a little older and having got to know her better it is easier to for me to see the breadth and depth of her dedication. Other people — family, friends, students — constituted her main priorities an awful lot of the time. Nonetheless, it was totally evident to everyone who knew her that she truly loved what she did!
At her funeral, there were around a dozen people who came up and gave very heartfelt speeches about how she had touched their lives. Some words that came up a lot to describe her: mentor, role model, friend, mother, fighter, wacky. She had a great sense of humour, including the ability to laugh through her Polish accent (picturesquaw!) and the weirdness of learning English idioms (e.g. about driving forth and back), and the ability to straight-facedly convince her students of how they sucked just before a contest, just to make sure they didn’t get too cocky. Take that, self-help books!
She made a huge difference in my life! I doubt I would be hacking websites and analyzing algorithms, working on my 3rd computer science degree if she had not given me such a good algorithmic problem-solving experience.The PEG hike up the Smoky Mountains in grade 11 felt like it was nearly going to kill me, but reaching the summit an exhilirating and unparalleled experience for me. Getting to teach and mentor Woburn students has been very rewarding and fun. I will miss her a lot and hope that her dedication, sincerity, and love of life rub off on the people who knew her well.
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