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 was that the balance sheet was dismal. 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. His dad’s bad luck was triggered by a car accident that impaired his ability to practice his skills as a cobbler. 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 headwind, the bane for the fickle while success loomed as the wind beneath one’s wings, the reward for the fervent, aggressive, and 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 fellow classmates. Dork, like in a list of innumerable acts, ranging from never siding with the other students to protest a homework, of getting 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 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 physical 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 very 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 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 exemplar of determination?
Pierre meticulously answered the questions. He was taken aback with ideas of working in groups, socializing and all the hoopla taking him out of his comfort zone. Of course, it never occurred to him the joke was on him, especially since it took place on April 1. He was book smart alright, but that didn’t preclude him to become an April’s fool.
Reynald Altéma, MD