“Why do we have to listen to this again? You explained it twice,” said the slight six-year-old boy with hair so blond it was almost white. Frustrated, he pleaded for the next topic. A sponge, his goal in life was to understand everything. Math came to him so easily, that he often reached the conclusion before the teacher could explain it. Information was his opium and at six he was addicted.
“But students need to hear it several times to understand,” she explained patiently.
The school librarian observed the nine-year-old boy entering what was his second home. He went straight to the technical section, selected books on science and electricity – never fiction – and sat on the floor in a corner, silently feeding his habit.
During one visit, she advised him, “For each two technical books you check out, you must also read a fiction book.” He quickly selected a novel and left with a new problem. He could check out a novel and just return it, but she had said to “read” the novel. That would be lying. After hours weighing alternatives and options, he reached a conclusion. It was simple: stop reading books.
The librarian never noticed the empty corner.
The boy’s seventh-grade class was made up of smart, confident students who were part of a larger group known as Kennedy’s Whiz Kids. They were the nerds; no football players-to-be in this diverse group. Most excelled in math and science, a few in the arts. More left-brained people were chosen as IQs were easier to measure than creativity.
“You are to select a novel of your choice, read it and write a book report.” A collective moan arose from the class. Another torturous book like Quo Vadis to survive.
“May we select any book, like a spy novel?” he asked, hopeful that Matt Helm might qualify. He had seen a Matt Helm movie. Matt Helm was cool. I bet the neighborhood bullies didn’t bother Matt Helm, the boy thought.
“Sure. Just read.” And he did. Matt Helm. Next came Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise, then Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
He walked past the secretary into the office of the dean of mathematics, which housed the largest collection of technical books he had ever seen, outside the library.
“I want to skip the first university math course. I learned this in high-school.”
Three months later, he added, “That was too easy, I want to take the third and fourth courses at the same time.”
He heard it often: it can’t be done. Ah, a challenge. You mean no one has done it yet. See the difference? The first implies it is impossible; the second, simply that no one as smart has tried.
Course four was built on three, and the dean most likely thought he’d fail, that the experience would shut him up.
The kid aced them both.
In 1969, male graduate students wore a suit and tie to class. Most were married and attended evening courses. The professor’s usual outfit was a black two-piece suit with patches of chalk dust, a white shirt and a dark, thin tie. He always addressed the students as Mr. or Miss.
Everyone was formal except the 18-year-old kid in the front row. He showed up in denim cut-offs, a white T-shirt and sandals, his mini-bike chained to the lamp post outside. His long blond hair and a face that maybe saw a razor once a week made him look 15. Everything about him seemed carefree, except his fingernails, which were bitten to the quick. He had nothing in common with his classmates. Those his age were struggling with the courses he graded as part of his school job.
The first interview at IBM went well. His long blond hair was an issue that scissors could resolve. A second interview in a nearby town was going even better.
“You must have gone home and changed, as Roger said you were dressed poorly.”
“Actually, I went out during lunch, withdrew my last $120 from the bank and bought this suit,” he confessed.
“I like your attitude. You got the job.”
For over two decades at IBM he walked not the leading edge or the cutting edge, but the bleeding edge, often bloody and smiling – still does.