Here's my Stephen Hawking story. It takes a minute, but we'll get to him, I promise.
I was a pretty good student in high school: solid GPA, decent SATs, a bunch of AP classes, etc. But for some reason, in the 10th grade, due to a clerical error or a guidance counselor snafu or something, I got shuffled into the lower science track. I'm still not entirely sure how this happened: I had gotten an A in biology, should've been headed to Chemistry next … and instead, wound up in "Earth Sciences."
It was an eye-opening experience. Leave aside the subject matter, which I had almost certainly already learned about in middle school. The class was filled with … how shall I put it … dullards and ruffians? The initial teacher of the class was new to the school and, I think, the profession. Mustachioed and a little chubby and a bit of a mumbler, no real classroom presence. And these kids smelled weakness. I'd never seen an adult treated with such unearned disrespect. (Earned disrespect, sure; but not for merely reeking of impotence.)
Well, one day the ruffians decided to have a bit of fun and, for kicks, chucked coins at the blackboard while the teacher was writing down something about rocks or clouds or whatever. And … that was that. He left the classroom, an administrator came in, and we never saw the poor guy again.
I seem to remember having a sub for a week or two and, before too long, a replacement teacher. I wasn't sure he was going to hack it either, when I first saw him: he was a slight guy, with glasses. Fresh meat. But there was steel behind his eyes and he had a plan to wow the ruffians and the dullards alike: he did a quick experiment that involved filling a balloon with some sort of gaseous byproduct and then using a bunsen burner to make said balloon explode. The ruffians, like all good apes, respected this newcomer for mastering fire; the dullards simply liked the fireworks show.
He was set the rest of the year.
Anyway, this teacher, whose name escapes me, may have had their respect, but he didn't have their attention or their interest. It was a struggle getting these future world beaters to really care about, well, anything. But he seemed to notice that I was doing well, racking up As and keeping my head down, and thought maybe I needed some extra attention or help. Some motivation to make more of myself.
So he gave me his copy of A Brief History of Time and said I should take a look at it, that there was a whole universe out there, etc.
Now, again, I didn't really need the motivation: I was just there to get my work done and pad the GPA, since this is where the school had decided to stick me in Dummy Sciences. But I could see what he was doing and found it pretty touching. Here's a teacher who clearly cared! I mostly felt bad that he had such terrible raw material to work with.
More than that, though, what stuck with me from the whole experience was the idea of Stephen Hawking as a figure of aspirational learning. Hawking took complicated ideas and simplified them for people—not geniuses, but jes' folks—who wanted to know … more. And he served as a role model for others—such as the bunsen-burner-wielding earth sciences teacher confronted by a pack of slobbering droogs—who wanted to help people proceed beyond their station in life.
Maybe Hawking was overpraised as a physicist, maybe he was more celebrity than genius in his later years. But none of that really matters, because he made people want to learn more. And the world could use more people like that.