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09 March 2016

The Story of Byron and the Tunisian Physics Team

Fall 2013: In the midst of preparation for the upcoming US Invitational Young Physicists Tournament, we heard from students -- Ahlem, Chada, and Mohamed -- at a school in Tunisia: Pioneer School of Manzeh 8.  They were excited about coming to that year's tournament in San Jose, California.

I was impressed with the efforts these students made in order to get all the crazy logistics taken care of so that they could attend.  They had to raise money to travel and to pay the hotel costs; Chada even went on Tunisian television with a plea for financial help.  They made travel reservations themselves, including arrangements for a few days extra in San Francisco after the tournament.  They slogged through the immigration issues and visa processes.  I don't know how much time they even had to work on the physics problems.  But, it looked like everything was all set for their attendance.

A few days before the team was to depart, Ahlem sent word that their teacher's visa had been denied.  D'oh!  But Perry, an American engineer who had helped with their financing and logistics, agreed to serve as their team leader at the tournament.  He'd meet them there.  No worries.

And thus, this team of three 17 or 18 year old students who had never been out of their country left Tunisia for San Jose.  Those of you who watch television serials recognize this part of the story as when everything goes wrong for the protagonists.

Remember the 2014 Atlanta Snow Jam?  That was just two days before teams were to arrive in San Jose.  The Atlanta airport was still recovering from being nearly shut down.  Ahlem, Chada, and Mohamed got through Paris, arrived in Atlanta on time, and looked for their flight to San Jose.  Which, of course, was delayed by an hour.  And then was canceled.  Our Tunisians were rebooked on the later flight, the one that was to depart at 11:00 p.m. eastern time.  Still no worries, other than a very late-night arrival on the eve of the tournament.


I first met Byron at an AP summer institute that I taught.  He was relatively new at teaching AP Physics, but he was clearly an outstanding physicist and physics teacher.  When the USIYPT was held in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, he came to judge -- it wasn't that far of a drive for him from Chattanooga.  

We were hoping that perhaps Byron could get together a team to participate in the 2014 tournament.  That didn't work out, but Byron managed to get approval to head to San Jose as a judge.  Fantastic!  The USIYPT is great professional development, a place where really strong high school physics teachers and education-minded college professors gather and talk shop.  Those of us running the tournament were thrilled to have Byron back with us, not just because he's one of those really strong high school teachers, but because we like him.  And we appreciated that he was willing to travel cross-country in order to participate.

Byron contacted us on the big travel day.  It turned out that all flights from Chattanooga to Atlanta were canceled, due to recovery from the Snow Jam.  I expected him to shrug his shoulders and apologize for not being able to make it.

Instead, he informed us that he'd brave the drive into and across Atlanta to catch his connecting flight to San Jose.  He had checked, and the roads had cleared up.  Wow, thank you, Byron, we said... that's going the extra mile.  Or, more literally, the extra 117 miles along I-75.  


As astute readers will have noticed, the initial flight from ATL to SJC was canceled.  Byron rebooked on the late flight, and settled down to wait.  

I'm still not sure how Byron and the Tunisian students recognized each other.  Somehow, though, the weary travelers began talking.  They discovered they were headed to the same place.  Ahlem, Chada, and Mohamed told Byron about all they had done to arrange their trip, and why their teacher couldn't come along; Byron told them a bit about what to expect at the tournament.  They talked about their respective schools, the similarities and differences.  The conversation was intercultural, but with substantial common ground -- Tunisia and Tennessee may be worlds apart, but a physics teacher and physics students always will be able to entertain each other.


As was nearly inevitable, the late flight to San Jose was canceled.

Everyone together -- Byron, Ahlem, Chada, Mohamed -- went to the reservations counter together to figure out how to get to San Jose.  The best option was the late flight to San Francisco, which was still running on time, departing in just 20 minutes from a nearby gate.  Then the drive down to San Jose would be only an hour.

But there was only space for Byron, the single flyer, on the San Francisco flight.  The party of three could not be accommodated.  They'd have to fly the next afternoon. 

Well, that wasn't going to work for Byron.  "Put me on tomorrow's flight as well, please," he said.  They made themselves a party of four.

Byron found a hotel with three available rooms and shuttled everyone to the hotel.  He took everyone to breakfast the next morning, and then back to ATL to see how many flight cancellations they'd have to endure: none.  The afternoon flight to San Jose in fact arrived on time.  I finally met Ahlem, Chada, and Mohamed when they arrived with Byron at the hotel restaurant at 8:00 p.m. pacific time, 11:00 p.m. eastern time, 5:00 a.m. in Tunisia.  The four of them weren't even grouchy from all the travel -- they were tired and hungry, sure, but primarily they were excited to have finally, together, found a way to San Jose.


Of course I, the Tunisians, the Tunisians' parents, and everyone involved with the tournament thanked Byron profusely for his help.  Byron could have, possibly should have, just gone home that night from Atlanta.  He was a volunteer, after all.  He could have slept in his own bed with his wife, and then either stayed home for the weekend, or tried to rebook from Chattanooga the next day.  Or he could have just jumped on that San Francisco flight.  But he didn't; he wasn't going to abandon these students to sleep in an airport five thousand miles from home, not when he had the means to take care of them.  

As everyone in turn expressed his or her thanks, Byron graciously pointed out, "you would have done the same."  And, you know, he's probably right.  I, and everyone I know involved in the USIYPT, routinely go well beyond the call of duty in order to serve the participating students.  (One might suggest that, since we are all volunteers, even taking on any duty is beyond the call of duty.)

But there's a long way between "I probably would have done the same" and "Byron did go through two days of travel heck because three Tunisian students -- whom he'd never met -- needed him."  He stepped up when called.  

And I hope I'll be all the more sure to step up when I'm called.

Thank you, Byron.

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