Monday, January 9, 2017
Today marks the tenth anniversary of this video going viral. Here is the story. Enjoy:
I have a saying that I like to live by: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” For example, perhaps you happen to like alcoholic drinks. You’ve probably had a time in your life where you’ve had one too many. In 1999, this happened to me on a Friday night, and it made for a long Saturday. I was recovering on my couch on that Saturday afternoon, channel surfing, when I came across the World Bartending Championships on ESPN. I identified with this. Being a basketball player my entire life, I enjoyed watching the tossing of the bottles behind the back and under the leg. It was cool to watch.
The following Monday I was teaching a grade twelve unit on ‘circles’ for the first time, and to illustrate a theorem, I used a wood compass with chalk in it. It was very awkward. You had to hold the middle point with one hand and swing the other end with the other hand. After about 270 degrees, you had to swap hands. It was a pain in the ass to use. I abandoned it on the Tuesday. At the start of that class I just decided to draw a circle freehand on the chalkboard. It was stunning. A young lady named Sarah (with whom I had a great rapport) said, “Wow, Sir, that is really good!” As I took ten steps back to admire my circle, the wheels in my head started turning and before I knew it, the next words out of my mouth were, “Of course it is good! I am the world freehand circle drawing champion.” Sarah responded with “Really?” I immediately told the story of how I go to
Las Vegas every year, what
the prizes were, and that I was the 1997 World
Freehand Circle Drawing Champion. This was the
beginning of the story of being the World Freehand Circle Drawing Champion
I continued to tell this story to every class I ever taught whenever a circle was required in the course.
“Sir, Do you have to qualify to go every year?”
My response to that question, “It is like winning the Masters. If you win it once, you are automatically invited every year.”
“Mr. O, how do they decide who wins?”
“They have a laser machine called the circleometer that creates the perfect circle closest to the one you drew. The circleometer then calculates the difference in area between the laser circle and the circle that you drew. The machine then calibrates the area difference as if you had drawn a circle with radius one meter. The person with the smallest area difference is declared the world freehand circle drawing champion.”
“So you go all the way to Vegas and only draw one circle?” is a common question I have heard over the years.
“You actually go to Vegas and only draw one circle. The rule is once your chalk touches the board you must draw a circle without having the chalk leave the board until your circle is complete. So if you are totally nervous and you accidentally touch the board with your chalk and then remove it from the board that is called a DNC – did not circle – and you are disqualified.”
In 2001 I changed schools from Lisgar Collegiate Institute to Glebe Collegiate Institute. Since these two schools were rivals, many of the students knew each other, and the story of Mr. O being the world freehand circle drawing champion followed me to my new school. On one particular day, I was covering someone else’s class when I was asked if I would draw a circle for them. I told the story and drew a circle.
A student called bullshit and said “My mom used to teach with you at Lisgar and she has never mentioned it to me.”
I responded with “Your mom probably never thought of mentioning it. Go home and ask her about it. She will tell you.” I immediately left the class and emailed his mom and asked her to go along with the story; for her to verify that I did indeed win the 1997 world freehand circle drawing championship when and if her son asked. I did not hear back from her for a couple of days, and then received an email from her verifying that she had stuck to the story despite almost losing it with laughter when he asked about it for the umpteenth time. Over the next few weeks the story spread like wildfire around the school. Everyone was asking me about it. I continued to tell the story over the next several years.
In was in June of 2006 that a young man named Luc, who was our school web-master, asked if he could take a video of me drawing the perfect circle and put it on the Glebe website. I checked with the Principal to make sure he was okay with me doing this. He gave me permission. One day Luc walked in with the video camera and proceeded to engage me in my story. It was easy for me to tell the story. I had rehearsed it for years. The video was 73 seconds long and was posted to the school website stating that I was the world freehand circle drawing champion. On the day that Luc showed up with the camera I did draw a perfect circle or as near as I could – it could not have happened on a better day. I directed many of my friends to the video over the next few months during the summer. The video was catchy and funny. People who saw it loved it.
On January third of 2007 my wife Erin and I gave birth to our first son. I like names that have meaning, so we decided to name our first born Grady Marcus Overwijk, after his mother (my wife) and my mother. Unfortunately Grady was very ill at birth. Grady was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit. It was a difficult time as we did not know what was wrong with our child. Thanks to expert care at the Childrens’ Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Grady has since been diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Congenital Myasthenic Syndrome - Rapsun variation. It is a condition that he will have to manage with medication for the rest of his life, but he is an amazing kid and I know that he will persevere and find his calling. After about 5 days at the hospital I decided to go home to check messages and email.
I had over 200 emails in my in-box all pertaining to the video that had been posted on the Glebe Collegiate website. One of the emails was from Evan Narog from Fargo, North Dakota. It turns out Evan had been collaborating with some co-workers and one of them drew a circle on a whiteboard to illustrate how everything was connected. Whoever he was, he drew a pretty good circle and one of them commented about the story of Giotto. They decided to do a google search to find the details of Giotto’s story. Giotto is generally considered the first in a line of great artists who contributed to the Italian Renaissance. According to lore, the Pope sent a messenger to Giotto, asking him to send a drawing to demonstrate his skill. Giotto drew a circle so perfect that it seemed as though it was drawn using a compass. As part of their search they eventually came across my video on the Glebe website. After watching it several times Evan decided to copy it and post it on social media. He posted it on College Humour, Break and Youtube. Within 24 hours, the video had gone viral on Youtube.
As a result of the video I began to receive attention from all sorts of sources. I got an email from a talent scout at the David Letterman Show, letters from long lost friends, inquiries from people interested in competing in the ‘World Championships’, people commenting how cool the video was, and the originators of the Rock Paper Scissors World Championships who wanted to give me some advice on how to capitalize on my new-found fame. I was also contacted by a talent scout from the George Stroumboulopoulos Show, former students, our local News stations and a Pod-Cast producer from Electric Sky. Someone had leaked the story to the Ottawa Citizen, our city’s daily newspaper, and they did a segment on the front page of the city section titled “Glebe math teacher circles the web”. I was eventually asked to do a clip for a national news story on
The George Stroumboulopoulos Show wanted to do a fun, but quirky segment on me and my circle drawing abilities. Their take on it was to portray me as someone who had been obsessed with circles his whole life. My true passion is engaging students in their learning. Pretending to be something I wasn’t felt a little bit like selling my soul. I was excited to share how I use story-telling to engage my students. They wanted to make fun of me. If you know me, you know I like fun, but this just seemed just a little too far off the mark. I declined their offer.
The Letterman show was intrigued by the video and contacted me, but they were not sure how they could include it on the show. I naturally offered “Stupid human tricks” or Letterman versus Overwijk in a circle-off. They declined and left it at “If any other major syndicated talk show offers you to go on their show let us know and we will negotiate something.”
As mentioned, I received an email from the Rock Paper Scissors Society out of Toronto. They were impressed with the video and were willing to give me some advice to stretch my 15 minutes of fame. They shared with me their action plan to have and sustain the “Rock Paper Scissors World Championships”. It was titled “Making Something from Nothing.” I found this ironic as I was trying to make something from the perfect circle, the representation of zero-nothing. During our conference call they basically communicated that the whole world was watching and I could take the 15 minutes of fame or I could stretch it. The major piece of advice they gave me was to hold a world championship and get a video on Youtube. It would validate my story from the viral video. They felt that over time no one would ever check the dates. What came first – the viral video or the WFHCDC?
Over the next six weeks I started planning the championship. It was to take place at the Cock and Lion Pub on Sparks Street in Ottawa. The Pub was owned by a good friend of mine, Denis Hines, who lost his battle with Cancer a few years back, may he rest in peace. Ironically, we were raising money for Cancer that night. All proceeds from the World Freehand Circle Drawing Championship were going to Cancer research. That morning I had done a segment on the local morning show. The host got a real kick out of the idea and I was able to describe how the championship was going to go down. Participants would go head-to-head in single elimination. A panel of five judges decided the winner of each match. The final match came down to a circle-off between me and a ring-maker whose studio is located here in Ottawa. The competition was tight, but in the end I came away with a victory, and a one of a kind custom ring that he designed and crafted. The night was a huge success. Fun was had by all, and we managed to raise $1 500 for the Canadian Cancer Society.
In March of 2007, I received an email from an art school in Germany. They were hosting an artist lounge at Art Basel, Switzerland in June of that year. They were interested in having me provide three, one hour talks, over the course of the week long art festival. They also wanted me do draw circles on command and to challenge others in attendance. After working out the details and getting some time off work, I managed to swing this. Yet there were some serious details to be worked out. Clearly I was going to need a chalkboard to draw on. What could I possibly talk about for three hours? Off I went to Switzerland to give my lectures at the biggest art festival in the world. When I finally arrived and made my way to the artist lounge to check in, I realized that I was just entertainment at the bar. Basically the art school from Germany was responsible for bringing in interesting people to provide audiences with unique and talented skills. The chalkboard they had constructed for me was enormous. It went from floor to ceiling and allowed me to use my shoulder as a pivot point, instead of my elbow when I was ripping circles. It was impossible to not draw a perfect circle. This was going to be great! Over the next several days I was able to get the crowd up and interacting in what was definitely one of the most unique experiences in my life. The focus of my presentation, besides the circle drawing, was the power of social media in making the ordinary extraordinary. Twenty years ago this would have been a local story that earned a few laughs. Today, with social media as a vehicle, my name and my story garnered World-wide attention.
A few months after I returned from Switzerland, I was contacted by Marco Martins. Marco is an award-winning writer and director from Lisbon, Portugal. Marco is best known for Alice, a film for which he won ‘Best Short Film’ at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005. Marco had seen my video on YouTube, and it had inspired a screenplay for a new film that he wanted to call How to Draw the Perfect Circle or ComoDesenhar Um Circulo Perfeito. Marco wanted to come to Ottawa to meet with me to discuss the viral video and my thoughts on circle drawing. He visited in October of 2007. We hit it off immediately, and we spent the week forming a friendship and introducing him to Ottawa. After his visit, he invited me to go to Portugal to shoot several scenes that involved me in a classroom, drawing the perfect circle for my students. In March of 2008, my wife Erin and I flew to Lisbon, leaving Grady with his grandparents. The first 2 days of our week long stay were spent on set watching the production team in action, and meeting the cast and crew. I shot two scenes at the Escola Liceu Passos Manuel. The script referred to me as ‘Alexander Overwijk - The Master of Circularity’. Although my scenes were cut from the final version of the film, it was a great experience and one I am not likely to forget.
The rest of the week was spent exploring Lisbon: Castelo Sao Jorge, Barrio Alto, and the Pavilhao Atlantico. On the fifth day we took a day trip up the coast visiting Pena National Palace in Sintra, the breathtaking Roca Cape, Guincho Beach, Boca do Inferno, Cascais and Estoril. Guincho and Roca Cape were especially fascinating for we landlocked Canadians. During this trip, Erin was eight months pregnant with our second child. We had a shortlist of names for our second son. Cole had made the list. While at the beach I drew several of the names in the sand. Jokingly, I wrote the word CIRCLE. I looked down for a moment, and then drew a circle around the IRC in the middle….C-O-LE. We had a winner. This pleased me as Cole’s name now had special significance. The trip was a wonderful gift. I am so glad to have been given this opportunity.
Rude Tube is a British show that highlights the back story of viral videos. I shot a segment for this show in 2011. I have actually never seen the segment but a friend of mine came across it. This show allowed me to tell the story a little.
In May of 2011, a Japanese TV crew came to my school to shoot a segment for a show that is equivalent to “That’s Incredible” an American reality show from the 1980’s. They had me draw circles and holler “That’s Incredible!” in Japanese. They actually shot me drawing a massive circle on the gym floor.
Next came an email from The Today Show on NBC in September of 2012. They were inviting me to New York to do a segment where I would teach the cohosts Savannah Guthrie, Natalie Morales, Willie Geist and Al Roker how to circle draw. They asked me a few questions about my talents and then I taught them a couple of techniques live. We had the competition which Al Roker won. They wanted to know how I knew if a circle was perfect or not – unfortunately I did not bring the circleometer with me.
My next collaboration was cool. In the summer of 2013 I received an email from Layet Johnson who wanted to do an art collaboration with me. It would show at GoodWeather Gallery in North Little Rock, USA from Nov 26th 2013 to Jan 1st 2014. Layet wanted to come to Ottawa and have me draw the circles and him doodle the insides. He planned on doing a yin and yang, an eight ball, a donut, a basketball, Saturn, peace, Volkswagon and a smiley face. This was a cool interaction. We hit it off right away. Layet enjoyed basketball as do I. We even managed to play a game of pick up while he was here. Layet brought the most beautiful baby blue blackboards with him to Ottawa. They were carefully packaged so as not to be harmed. When the time came for me to draw the circles, I struggled as the boards were smaller than what I had been used to in my classroom. I kept looking to him for approval. Eventually he told me that this is what I do. I am the world freehand circle drawing champion. He told me to let it go. He left me alone in our makeshift studio and set me to the task. When I play a sport I believe in rhythm and being in the zone. Layet had just provided the right mindset to put me in the zone, so after he left I was done drawing eight circles in no time. After I was finished, he doodled the rest of each piece, and they turned out great. I had made a connection with Layet as I had earlier with Marco.
Recently I was on Outrageous Acts of Science as the number 9 superhuman in the world. Ya right!
I teach high school math for a living. Over the last 8 years, I have collaborated with Bruce McLaurin, a colleague of mine, to develop an idea for teaching courses that we like to call ‘cycling the curriculum’ or ‘spiraling the curriculum’. Instead of teaching courses linearly, we introduce all topics through activities. As the course evolves, activities involve more than one idea and they invoke deeper thought about the ideas in the course. Students need to make connections and understand the ideas on a deep level. Ideas always come around again in future activities. It is neat that the idea of a circle or cycle is present in my pedagogy.
There are many other small things that have happened since the video went viral. Everyone likes to hear about my circle drawing story. I like story-telling and it sure is a great story to drop at a party where people don’t really know me. People are not sure what to believe. I’m not sure what is going to happen next with my circle drawing journey but it sure has been a fun ride.
In spite of the fun, or perhaps because of it, over the past few years I have been able to spend some time focusing on what I am truly passionate about – engaging students in the study of mathematics. I have been invited to several speaking engagements and educational forums to talk about the new way we are presenting the math curriculum. Not an event goes by in which someone doesn’t recognize me as ‘that circle drawing guy’, or asks me to draw a perfect circle. My 15 minutes of fame has brought me back to my roots. I have come ‘full-circle’ and I am now enjoying teaching and learning like never before. My friends have always encouraged me to write a chronical of everything that has happened since the video first went viral. My collaboration with Layet Johnson and Haynes Riley has made this possible. To them I am forever grateful. It has been a ‘TRIP’. A round trip.