this point I asked the student if he really didn't know the answer.
This, in some measure, is the story of my middle son, Ian. You would like him. He's tall, rather handsome, and entirely... well, spiritual. In truth, he's the most spiritual human being I've ever known - a person incapable of hatred, meanness, or even indifference. He's also quite brilliant, but in a way that was not understood by his teachers. All through school he did rather poorly, at least until his junior or senior year in high school.
It was during one summer in high school that something happened --- I'm not sure what --- that changed everything. All I remember is that he took off on his bicycle one morning, road 35 miles to the town of Roseburg, bought a book, returned home, and spent the remainder of that summer either relaxing on a hillside or in his room reading that book. As it turns out, he had decided to teach himself the rudiments of physics. I didn't comprehend how much he taught himself until he later decided to leave high school before graduation to attend the University of Oregon as a physics and astronomy major. His high school teachers certainly didn't understand, and strongly opposed his efforts. But, believing him, loving him, I wrote a letter to the university begging for a hearing of his case.
The short of it is, he was admitted. Within a year he was put on as a research assistant to Dr. James Kemp, a professor of physics and astronomy of good reputation. He worked for two years with Kemp at Pine Mountain Observatory, co-authored papers, designed experiments, and so on. Meanwhile, back at the university, he was passing certain theoretical math and physics courses with flying colors and flunking the applied courses, though he dismissed the latter as inconsequential.
I should say here that through all the years of school and ever after he has rejected the pat answers and the systems of learning that stifle, not everyone, but most particularly the special ones, the most naturally creative ones. He once said to me: "Pop, I don't care about plugging in numbers to formulas they don't want to explain." So, he taught himself to derive the formulas for himself in order to understand why the plugged-in numbers work. And, naturally, he did rather poorly in the number-plugging courses.
This was a marvelous period in our lives. Ian's own excitement about astronomy and science was infectious. We would visit him and Professor Kemp at the observatory, spend a day or two staying up all hours (astronomers, like vampires, live in the night) talking about astronomy, science, politics, or whatever the mood and circumstances commanded of us. Kemp was a remarkable figure; he was tall, lean, and tan. He always wore short pants and went barefoot, even with three feet of snow on the ground and temperatures below freezing. Ian thought he must be other than human. Kemp, for his part, regarded himself and his work in entirely human terms, suggesting always that he was but an archaeologist exploring the antique light of creation on the chance that he might, with luck, discover something useful. But such remarks would only further convince dear Ian that Kemp was more than human. Because, in fact, he didn't resemble other humans, at least not where it counts --- the mind.
Then, alas, something terrible happened. Kemp became ill and died rather soon after from the effects of a fast-moving cancer. Ian was devastated, of course. He loved that man, perhaps as much he loves me. Ian and talked about it at length about the matter, but nothing I could tell him at the time could ease his sense of loss; he had already withdrawn to a place I couldn't reach.
Ian and I attended the memorial together. It was held at the university in a very large room to accommodate family, friends, colleagues, and Kemp's many students past and present. Ian insisted on taking his guitar (he had taught himself how to play classical guitar at the same time he was teaching himself physics), and at some moment, without being asked, he simply went forward and began to play. It was a rather touching piece.... Spanish.... What was it?... Oh, yes (if I can get the spelling right) "Rumors de Calmat." (I think I butchered the spelling). Anyway, when he finished playing, Ian walked out, me trailing after him. He spoke not a word as we drove home.