Defining Moments

“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.

“I don’t.”

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.


  1. Rich Helms September 22, 2006


    Interesting question! I have often thought of my mind as a computer.

    You are right, are we the programmer or the program.

  2. Roman Romanenko September 22, 2006

    Hello Rich,

    I enjoyed this.

    Also reminded me of an idea that I ponder once in a while. Our brain is so similar to a computer, how do we rewrite stuff? Or is it reserved for The Programmer?

    Roman Romanenko

  3. Rich Helms September 22, 2006


    Thanks. We like to believe our lives are very unique but reaction to this essay has taught me that while the specifics may differ, this collection of experiences is far from unique. A school teacher emailed me that she had some of her students read it. Many related. Details were different but the theme was the same.

    It is comforting to realize that others struggle like we do.

  4. Kevin McMenimen September 22, 2006

    Thank you for sharing the address of this essay with me. As we have learned more about each other over the years I continue to enjoy the insight into your personal history and your thought process while finding tremendous correlations to my own experiences. Perhaps great minds think alike for a reason?
    Warm Regards,
    Kevin Mc.

  5. Rich Helms September 20, 2006

    Thanks Annette.

    My son Mike had a similar experience to yours. When he was little he read books years ahead of the norm. The librarian didn’t want him touching the books as he might damage them.

    Funny, so many librarians try to protect the books rather than promote reading.

    “I am a writer!”

    After this piece I say that now. As a funny aside, my license plate is now “IR SMART”

    I thought it was a riot to be a writer and have a license plate with a grammatical error in it.

  6. Annette McLeod September 19, 2006

    Hey Rich,

    I was sorry to miss your reading last Saturday, being felled by the flu. Finally read your piece today and really impressed. I always knew you were a big ol’ egghead, but the piece very poetically gives us the view from inside that giant brain. The bit when you were nine about not wanting to read fiction, not wanting to lie and searching for a solution – “It was simple: stop reading books” – is downright eerie. I always devoured novels and my primary school librarian let me take 3 at a time, instead of the 2 afforded other students, because I went through them so fast. When that librarian left and another joined the school, she cut me back to 2 because how dare I be different from anyone else? I wonder if any of these librarians know the wounds they inflict.
    Great piece. You better stop saying you’re not a writer. 🙂

  7. Kevin Craig September 10, 2006

    Hello Rich,

    I was thankful to be in the audience at the WCDR breakfast yesterday when you did a reading of this essay. It stayed with me throughout the rest of my busy day. It was really wonderful. I’m sure you could tell by the audience’s reaction that your piece had us slipping down to that comfort zone we find when we are listening to something truly captivating. Great work! It was a great story and a well written story. Thanks again for sharing it.

  8. Rich Helms September 9, 2006

    “Defining Moments” is a personal essay about the events in my life that shaped and formed me. This was a challenging exercise to condense the essence into a five-minute essay.

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