An old man in tatters, on his death bed, almost gasping for air, very aware of his imminent demise, felt an obligation to give a piece of advice to his son. His assessment of his life miscues, false starts and near-misses: dismal balance sheet. Somehow, he summoned the willpower to do this last act. With a raspy voice and in a doleful manner, he told his son, Pierre, “Never forget to excel in school and everything else you attempt to do in life. Above all, learn a well-paying profession to avoid the same path of my miserable life.” Living in a threadbare environment, on a litter-strewn street with rat infestation, Pierre understood clearly what it meant to live with limited means. A car accident triggered his dad’s bad luck; it impaired his ability to practice his skills as a tailor, a trade he was good at. Instead, he barely eked out a living by holding on to minimum wage jobs. Pierre took his dad’s advice to heart and forever saw failure as a nemesis, the bane for the fickle while success loomed as the north star, the reward for the fervent with a competitive mindset. Pierre was six years of age at the time of that conversation. The optic of his dad, disheveled, etched into his psyche and he decided to favor academic performance and neglect social skills development. He relocated and grew up in a rural area with his maternal grandmother, the only relative he had alive. She in turn asked for nothing better than good grades from school.
A little over a decade later, in college, as a pre-med student, he only had one fixation: be the best at everything, win every argument, find the correct answer to every question professors would ask in class. He would go to any length to ingratiate himself with them. “What a dork!” was a common utterance by his classmates. Dork, like in a list of innumerable acts, ranging from never siding with the other students to protest a homework, or his ostentatious delight of getting a perfect or close to perfect grade for an exam and mess up the curve for the rest of the class. Dork as a lab partner who can’t work well with others. Dork like the student who thinks of nothing on insisting on a demonstration of Schrödinger’s equation on a day when students had their minds set on hooking up with each other for the upcoming school dance for Homecoming Day. He would argue relentlessly with a professor even for half of a point to catapult him into A+ as the final grade. He acquired the reputation of a nerd to be avoided by fellow students and professors alike.
From his perspective, school was a battlefield; his fellow students were opponents to vanquish. Tenacity and fierceness were virtues, a mantra to proudly wear on his sleeves. For example, he would ask about an oncoming test or quiz as if welcoming it when his peers would be too busy to play catch up with the subject matter. It never fazed him that he came across as a show-off. One even wonders if it mattered to him. He was the epicenter of the universe, enclosed in his own bubble and paying little attention to his social surroundings. His friends were his books, his tools for his advancement. His fiend was a slacker, a loafer who wouldn’t be actively involved in studying or any endeavor related to learning. “All study and no play,” was another description frequently leveled at him. Pierre’s awkward, unusual if not aberrant behavior was entrenched. His appearance was deceiving. As stocky as he was, even as a lad, he eschewed playing sports, whether it be peewee football, basketball, little league baseball, all boys’ national pastimes, earning him the label of a “sissy.” He took advantage of every chance to dazzle a teaching assistant, as well as a professor, never mind if it would frazzle his peers.
His nerdiness never failed at suffocating the proper development of his social skills. Students as a rule make fun of teachers. Whatever the venue, the classroom, the playground, they custom tailor ribbings of teachers, they invent monikers for them, and they shamelessly mime them for the good old fun of it and along the way establish lifelong bonding among themselves. Truth be told, some of the best friendships are collateral perks of the proximity of students in classrooms who indulge in small talks all day long. Social animals as we are, the need to interact with one another becomes an existential mandate and an uncontrollable wont. Being shunned by one’s peers amounts to torture, a sentence to be avoided at all cost. That’s true for the average normal individual. When one never tasted the catnip tea of fellowship, bonding’s relevance becomes moot or at least no longer holds preferential status. Pierre never participated in this venerated tradition of camaraderie among students. Whether by choice or happenstance, he was a reviled and polarizing figure.
Pierre’s aloofness and selfishness irked his peers and grated on their last nerves. He would always find an excuse to avoid study groups. Strange as this may seem, he was a great tutor. He seemed to enjoy teaching others beneath him but was loath to help his peers and wouldn’t volunteer to do so either. Fed up with Pierre’s peculiar ways, a few of his peers decided to play a trick on him to teach him some humility. A graduate student who was supervising their lab joined the fray. On a Tuesday afternoon, Pierre received a note in the lab that stated:
You have been identified as a potential young scholar and as such you are invited to take an exam to test your ability to solve arcane problems for average students but smooth sailing for students like you with a superior IQ. The student with the highest grade will have his picture posted in the college newspaper in addition to receiving a commendation letter from the Dean. If you are interested in partaking in this endeavor, arrange for the test to be taken at your convenience.
Pierre without thinking twice took the bait. “I want to be part of this, right away,” he beamed to the graduate student. He went into an empty room, sat down, and readied himself to take the exam, expecting to ace math, physics, or organic chemistry problems. Instead, there were 5 questions to answer:
1-Explain in as many details as possible how to be a team player.
2-Show how it’s better to work in a group as opposed to doing it solo.
3-It takes as much energy to make a grimace as it does a smile. Why would one be preferable over the other?
4-It’s often said that man is a social animal. Do you agree and if so, what are the benefits derived from social interaction?
5-Between reification and deification, which one would you choose as an exemplar of determination?
Pierre was obviously out of his comfort zone. He was taken aback with ideas of working in groups, socializing and all that hoopla. Irritation was setting in in a crescendo fashion. He fidgeted in his seat constantly since he disagreed with many of the premises on which the questions were based. The only question that made any kind of sense to him was the last one and he spelled out his dutiful approach to explain how his life was an exemplar of just that, achieving established goals. He deified the pursuit of excellence.
He made the fitful decision to only answer that one question and stood up to go outside to return his answer.
“April’s fool!” His fellow lab students cried in unison. Pierre was dumbfounded. April’s fool? What’s that? The befuddled look on his face was pathetic to the onlookers. He was so far out in his own world that the joke landed with hardly a sting. Ann, the graduate student who signed off on the trick felt sorry for Pierre because he was oblivious of the intent of the locution. She decided to change course and go as far as needed to see if she could make a dent into Pierre’s disengagement socially.
“There were 5 questions asked and you only answered one. How can a smart student like you fail so abjectly?”
While “April fool” held no sway with him, the word “failure” was a crushing blow to his ego.
“The questions asked were based on false premises. I don’t care to work in groups. I do very well on my own, why do I need others to achieve my goal?”
“OK, since you are so smart and can figure things out on your own, then unless you want to have the tag of failure adorned to your reputation, then figure out the essence behind the questions on this test. What was the intent behind asking these questions? Since you never need anybody, go ahead, and find out on your own.”
This was a challenge that Pierre never faced before. In his world, facts were well defined. A problem was merely an attempt to find an obvious solution based on a set of facts and not on a guessing game. Asking him to divine someone else’s intent while there are no facts to rely on was beyond the realm of his reasoning. Neither was asking for help. Except that help comes from the strangest of places.
On his way to his dorm room, he overheard the following conversation between a few students:
“Check this out. My girlfriend was telling me about this nerd in her chemistry lab who couldn’t even get that they were pulling a fast one on him by having him take a fake test to teach him humility and need to become a social being.”
“No kidding! That’s wild!”
“The funniest part is that when they told him it was an April’s fool joke, he still didn’t get it. That’s pathetic for someone to be so book smart and yet be lacking plain common sense.”
No simple phrase ever had a more profound effect on another soul. Pierre for once realized that his behavior was indeed an issue with his classmates. He would have never guessed on his own the genesis of this trick. Luckily for him, help kept coming unbidden.
“How come we never see you at any party or talking to a friend?” That happened at the next session of tutoring the following day, that question came from a female student who asked him that at point-blank.
As if a fire was lit by this question, another one came, “Do you like other humans or are you so much into the self you forget others?”
Yet to bring the matter to fever pitch, another student added, “Rumors are rife that you don’t care about being a social being and that you are full of yourself. I feel sorry for you. You will learn that in life we all need someone to have a shoulder to cry on when the blues becomes your friend, no matter what kind of good grades you get in class.” She said this before giving a kiss to her boyfriend seating next to her.
Pierre couldn’t believe his eyes and ears. He never paid any attention to this type of mushy stuff, but he had to come to grip with this aspect of human beings, a highly esteemed and valued ego boost in their lives. For one thing, he was the subject of many conversations and innuendos and his very gesture or lack of was monitored by others. The bursting of his bubble was occurring in the worst possible way. To keep the flame alive, “Well what happened? Did the cat take your tongue? How come you are so silent all of a sudden? You are always so talkative when describing kinetic energy!” A guffaw followed by slapping a high-five with another student let him know that he couldn’t get out of this situation so easily. The hot seat was getting warmer.
For the first time in his life, he recounted the story of his last encounter with his dad and his promise to always be the best he can be. He even became misty and from a lively room of students having a good time cornering a stuffy fellow, the atmosphere became serene, because everybody realized they were witnessing a very private confession from a loner who never knew the perks of friendship.
“Well, it is a good thing to be an excellent student, however, excess in anything becomes harmful to the self and others. I am sure a lot of your classmates would ask for nothing better than for you to give them a helping hand when they can’t grasp a subject matter. It’s a nice thing to talk to others. You should try it and you may like it.”
This opened the floodgate. Students let him know about the fact that being a smart African American male student with a stellar record was something to envy but being a loner was an affront to the spirit of solidarity among humans.
One last sentence resonated in a way he found surprising, “My sister who is in your math class thinks you are cute, but you never pay her any mind.” Somehow Pierre felt liberated in the sense he was in the midst of an epiphany. Ever the competitor, he decided he would fight the demons populating the chip on his shoulder.
“I got it indeed. I want to start a study group,” he announced to the graduate student. She had to do a double take with her eyes all wide, thinking that redemption could cast a wide net, collect and flip some hardened spirit. It wasn’t long before word of mouth carried the news to the farthest reaches of the campus. Pierre was changing his ways! It sounded like a playboy changing into a monogamous gentleman. Well, that would be stretching the truth a bit. If one is not careless spelling out the facts, this is what would be reported.
Pierre began a journey to discover that the world was made of more than one person who mattered. He learned to parse the balance between the collective harmony and the individual satisfaction, the meaning of sharing, the value of give and take, the pedestal of the position of a trailblazer and the pit reserved for the lone selfish maverick. That journey began under the watchful eye and soft hand of the “sister in his math class who thinks he is cute” and who in turn he “found to be so cute and so appealing to be around.” Spreading pleasantness and holding nerdiness at bay became a lifelong struggle that he kept winning one day at a time.
Reynald Altéma, MD