Looking Back on Math and Computer Science Teacher Michael Thibodeaux’s 44-year Career at Menlo

After+44+years+of+teaching+at+Menlo%2C+Upper+School+math+and+computer+science+teacher+Michael+Thibodeaux+is+retiring.+Photo+courtesy+of+Pete+Zivkov.

After 44 years of teaching at Menlo, Upper School math and computer science teacher Michael Thibodeaux is retiring. Photo courtesy of Pete Zivkov.

Chase Hurwitz, Sports Editor

I usually have a pointed way of saying it, but I think that every class, if it’s been successful, should give you another sense, another way of looking at the world. If you took art history, for example, suddenly you’d see new references in advertisements, and it’d just be more fun to be alive. That’s what every successful class should offer, just a richer experience as a human being.”

After 49 years of teaching – 44 at Menlo – Upper School math and computer science teacher Michael Thibodeaux is retiring. His retirement decision was not determined by the COVID-19 pandemic; however, distance learning made the decision a little easier.I didn’t want to keep teaching when I wasn’t at my best, so I planned to retire in my early 70s, and I will soon be 71,” Thibodeaux said. “The move to online education was difficult — my old-fashioned style of teaching, lecturing, does not work very well in a distance-learning setting,” he said. “I was happy to do my best carrying my classes to the end of the year, but faced with the prospect of year-long online courses, it seemed wise to leave these new challenges to my much brighter, more energetic and more creative young colleagues.” 

Thibodeaux began working for Menlo 44 years ago when the Upper School and College were still combined. When the school and college split in 1994, he began to exclusively teach in the Upper School. 

Thibodeaux (front left) and the Menlo Math Team pose for a photo in 1978. This photo was taken before the College and Upper School split, and the problem-solving team featured both high school and college students. Photo courtesy of Menlo School.

Since then, Thibodeaux has been a staple on campus, almost always spotted in his iconic pairing of chalk-covered jeans and suspenders. Throughout his long career, Thibodeaux has had the opportunity to impact many of his students in the classroom and beyond. “Mr. Thibodeaux serves as a life inspiration for me,” senior Ethan Yan said. “Mr. Thibodeaux’s classes have genuinely changed the way I view the world. […] To me, one of the most meaningful aspects of teaching is the opportunity to make a positive difference on future leaders of society, and Mr. Thibodeaux has certainly more than achieved that in his career.”

Alumna Catherine Pavlov (‘12) was impacted by Thibodeaux’s enthusiasm. “Mr. Thibodeaux inspires passion in his students by showing his own and by approaching every problem and question with genuine curiosity and interest,” Pavlov said.

Thibodeaux even influenced alumnus Chris Harris’ (‘03) future career. “I would not be in the profession that I am today without Mr. Thibodeaux. He lit a fire that has kept me studying and applying my computer science knowledge for the last 20 years,” Harris said. Harris now works as an engineer at VMware.

Thibodeaux also had a large impact on his colleagues, acting as a mentor for Upper School math teacher Lauren Lax. “Really, if Hogwarts had a math teacher, I feel like it would be Mr. T. He has influenced my lecture style a lot,” Lax said. “I know I’m nowhere close to his mastery, but he has given me something to aspire to. […] I’m still in denial about next year. No one will ever take his place.”

Thibodeaux, Peter Brodie and Lauren Lax are given Menlo gear from the Menlo Athletic Department in 2010 for being faculty members who most faithfully attend Menlo sporting events. Thibodeaux has acted as a mentor for Lax ever since she joined Menlo 13 years ago. Photo courtesy of Pete Zivkov.

Thibodeaux is a self-proclaimed nerd. “In our area of the world, [that] is the highest praise you can get,” he said. His classroom, also referred to as The Neighborhood, reflects that attitude; the first things one often sees on the walls when entering The Neighborhood are the many photos of past students. “I’ve been doing it for about 25 years. The tradition started when one of my students said something that just amazed everybody and someone suggested to make them ‘Nerd of the Month.’ Now, these middle-aged people come back and look at their picture on the wall. People really want to get on the wall, but the primary requirement is just to be a math and science kind of person who hangs around The Neighborhood,” Thibodeaux said.

Past students can attest to the importance of the culture Thibodeaux created by celebrating nerds and their accomplishments. “I considered The Neighborhood to be my home, and I made many of my friends at Menlo there,” alumnus Thomas Woodside (‘19) said. “It was a home to me in a large part because he made it that way. […] Thibodeaux made us proud of being nerds.” According to alumnus John McNelly (‘15), Mr. Thibs always had a giant tin full of decades’ worth of old change from past inhabitants of The Neighborhood, labeled the ‘Starving Nerd Fund.’ He always would stock his mini-fridge with Hershey’s chocolate bars, and any time anyone took a chocolate bar, they would add some money to the Starving Nerd Fund to pay it forward.”

[Thibodeaux] is genuinely interested in pursuing knowledge purely for the joy of it,” Yan said. Thibodeaux teaches AP Calculus BC and AP Computer Science, along with his role as advisor to Menlo’s mathematics club. His favorite lesson each year is the day when he explains the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. “It brings together a bunch of different ideas, and it has become sort of a tradition for me to bring in a cake, so it is a really fun day,” Thibodeaux said.

For many students, this lecture is an unforgettable one. “He welcomed us into the ‘priesthood’ of calculus, and we spent the class celebrating and trying out some problems with the new technique we had learned,” sophomore Alex Acra said. Even other teachers sit in during this lesson. “Every single year I’ve gone to his Fundamental Theorem of Calculus Day. He’s surprised I’ve kept coming, but I never get tired of seeing him in action,” Lax said. 

Thibodeaux explains a calculus problem in The Neighborhood. Above the chalkboard are past “Nerd of The Month” posters. Photo courtesy of Pete Zivkov.

Whether he’s teaching math or computer science, Thibodeaux’s animated teaching style always seems to spread enthusiasm within his own class. “He wrote furiously on the chalkboard,” alumnus Keeton Martin (‘18) said. “The best thing about Mr. Thibodeaux’s class was that no one could keep from marveling at the topic when his enthusiasm was causing chalk to fly across the room: the energy was contagious.” Others credit Thibodeaux with instilling a love of math within them. “Mr. Thibs taught me that math could be exciting,” McNelly said. According to senior Lily Loftis, “No longer was [math] a topic that gave me a lot of anxiety, but something I liked doing. The confidence I gained was 100% due to Mr. Thibs’ constant encouragement and validation.”

“[My students] are kind of like my foster children — when they graduate I cry — so I’m going to miss the students [the most]. I love them,” Thibodeaux said.

Above all, students remember Thibodeaux for the kindness he displays toward them. “It’s oft-repeated that Mr. Thibodeaux is at every sporting event, every drama production, every performance or showcase, but I can attest firsthand that it’s true. From my first recitals at Menlo freshman year to my run-throughs before college auditions earlier this semester, he has always been in the audience,” senior Jonathan Hou said.

“His dedication to his students and his advocacy groups is undeniable,” alumna Kamakshi Bharagava (‘15) said. “The ease with which he connects with students is the reason why he is so beloved, and respected.” According to Martin, “Mr. Thibs was the most gentle and kind person you would ever meet.”

Despite adoration from generations of Menlo students, Thibodeaux gives himself less credit. “I don’t think that I have had a great impact. I think that we accept great students and we cheer them on as they do great things. In a year or two some talented new teacher will have improved on whatever I did,” Thibodeaux said. “Menlo students are smart, witty, and kind — every day it is a treat to learn together with them. There are writers who despair about each new generation, but, from where I stand, the youth of today are […] talented, delightful, caring people.”

The Menlo Class of 2020 honor Thibodeaux by dressing up as him for their class costume on Halloween. Thibodeaux wore his usual Leonhard Euler costume. Photo courtesy of Pete Zivkov.