Not a Spy After All: Meet Mr. Polyak
Among the new faces at Friends this year is a cheerful young man named Viktor Polyak. He sits tucked away in his corner of a shared office on the second floor of the Science and Math Building, across from the elevator.
Ask students about him, and they’ll tell you what a great guy he is; how genuine he is. How his sense of humor is hilarious, fresh, and oftentimes unappreciated. How he uses his two cats, Lil Guac and Nugget, as the subjects of his warm-up problems. And what a good teacher he is: how he goes out of his way to make sure students understand everything discussed in his class.
Often there’s wondering, even anxiety, among students when we see our schedules over the summer, and spot a new teacher. Mostly because we know nothing about them: nothing about their way of teaching, their policies, etc.
Going into this school year, there was a lot of anxiety among upperclassmen about the new Physics teacher, Viktor Polyak. From his name, people assumed he was some sort of crazy Russian spy - with white hair, matching lab coat, perhaps a missing eyebrow, and a scar that ran over his glass eye - who would make physics class a living hell.
“My mom and I looked at my schedule, and she saw his name and said: ‘Ooh, he’s Russian. He’ll be hard,’ ” says senior Penn Hoen. “ ‘Great,’ I thought.”
Dreading physics, Penn walked into class on orientation day. In walked “this young, Peter Parker-looking type with a beard.” Not a Russian spy after all! [Editor’s note: “That he knows of,” Mr. Polyak told a Quill fact-checker.]
Immediately, he won over the room. Penn says it was obvious, by how genuine Mr. Polyak’s excitement for being at Friends and teaching physics was, that this was going to be a better year than anyone anticipated.
After a few classes, I sought out Polyak in the dark office he shares with first year Math teacher Claire Cunliffe, and he agreed to be interviewed.
A few days later, we met in the dining hall, where he proctors an extra help session. It was the first extra help block of the year. Polyak explained the rules and expectations to the underclassmen. Upper School head Steve McManus, lurking in the doorway to make sure things went smoothly, flashed him two thumbs up.
I sat down with him in a corner booth by the back doors. In the conversation that followed, and in subsequent ones, he told me a lot about his life, and his first weeks here at Friends.
Polyak grew up in Harford County, and attended John Carroll High School. He confesses, he was a little nerdy. When he was taking physics, "Despicable Me" had just come out in theaters, and people joked that his name was like the villain, Vector. He also got the joke: “What’s your vector, Viktor?” from the movie Airplane!
At first, he says, he didn’t know he wanted to be a teacher. Then, last year, an old professor of his asked if he could fill in for a teacher at another school who had to leave halfway through the year. He accepted.
“There was not a lot of stress going into that job,” he told me, because there were low expectations considering the circumstances. Polyak realized he liked teaching, though, and wanted to pursue it.
He had heard of Friends, because his aunt, Gita Deane, teaches 3rd grade here [See “Marriage Equality Pioneer in Our Midst,” page 9]. She told Polyak a physics position would be opening, and he eagerly applied. When he got the job, he says, he put high expectations on himself. He realized this new job would be more serious than his last one.
“There would be more responsibilities, more people, more accountability,” he says, “and honestly, there would be no excuse if I failed to meet certain expectations, because there was no safety net of the circumstances of my last job being that I had to start in the middle of the year.”
Initially, he was really nervous. But colleagues helped a lot: Science department head and physics teacher Shelly Watts, and his official mentor, Chemistry teacher Kate Hindes, whom he says gets his sense of humor. And so far, he says, he’s been pleasantly surprised by how mature students are.
Our time came to an end when the bell rang, and with a smile he wished me farewell. I walked back to Senior Hall thinking about how lucky we are to have such great teachers. If every new faculty member is even close to being as nice and hardworking as Mr. Polyak, I know our future is in good hands.