William James Sidis could speak five languages and read Plato in original Greek by the age of five. At eight he passed the entrance for Harvard but had to wait three years to be admitted. Even so he became Harvard’s youngest scholar and graduate in 1914 at the age of sixteen. Frequently featured in ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not’, Sidis made the front page of ‘The New York Times’ nineteen times.’
The story defies all conventional norms and may even sound like a joke if you found out that Sidis was born on April 1, 1898. But to the best of our judgement this is a true story*. But then if he was such an amazing character, how come no one knows of him? Whatever happened to him?
Nothing! If one were to believe a 1937 New Yorker story titled ‘April fool’. Apparently the ‘Boy Wonder’ after graduating from Harvard, pursued his own obscure and seemingly meaningless interests. When he died in 1944, obituaries called him ‘a prodigious failure’ and ‘a burnt-out genius’ who never achieved anything of significance despite his talents.
Interestingly the story doesn’t end here!
Cathie Slater Spence’s Yankee magazine story ‘In Search of April fool’ tells us that Dan Mahony of Massachusetts, intrigued by the Sidis story, spent many years looking into the work of this failed wonder boy. And he discovered some manuscripts, one of which was described by a recognized ‘eccentric genius’ Buckminster Fuller as ‘a fine cosmological piece’ that astoundingly predicts the existence of black holes – in 1925! Mahony also unearthed a science fiction novel, economic and political writings, and eighty-nine- weekly newspaper columns that Sidis wrote under a pen name.
So what is the point that I am trying to make? Allow me to tell you another small story – not as spectacular as the first one but equally important.
Very recently I attended a school’s annual sports day. These were children in the age group of four to seven, so the races weren’t really meant to push for performance but more in ‘the spirit of the game’. It was one of those races where one kid just decides not to run and simply stands rooted at the starting line crying, while others are running, some of whom are simultaneously trying to locate their parents in the crowd to seek their approval. A whole lot of fun, yet you could see cheering going on for the winning participants, points being given away to winning house.
Watching from the sidelines, I could estimate that most children realized that it was better to come first than last. Not a difficult concept to grasp. I also noticed that some kids ran the races by the book- i.e. if they were supposed to jump the bamboo hurdles they did so, and if they had to hop like a rabbit, they did that too. But none of them came first. Because some other kids decided not to jump the bamboo hurdles but run right over them; or, instead of keeping their feet together and hopping, figured that it was faster to do a part hop and part run.
Uummm! Food for thought! A short while later a race for parents was announced. And this was really interesting. Eight fathers lined up at the starting line. They were asked to run to a clothesline, take a diaper, run across to the other end, ‘tie’ the diaper onto a doll and then get back to the finish line. Among the gentlemen, one person stood out the most – who obviously had experience – he tied the diaper meticulously and then carefully cradling the “baby” in his arms, hurried back to the finish line. But guess who reached the race first? Well, it was a father who had just wrapped the diaper around the doll – not tied it – and was running more furiously than a father would run from a burning house – with the “baby” held upside-down by its plastic legs.
Thanks for you patience. The upshot: social organizations – and that includes schools, families, and publishing houses like the ones who refused Sidis’s manuscripts, are not always the best judges and promoters of what is valuable and good in a person. Especially so, when the ‘good’ is not part of popular culture and not conventionally accepted to be so.
This is not a criticism aimed at social institutions. They have no option but to be slower to accept change, be less experimental and less dynamic. Their value is precisely in that.
I am also building a case against the current worldwide revival of religious fanaticism. The cultural and social intolerances that pervade the world in different degrees, under different names, some socially unacceptable while others are. While every social organization has its own need to preserve its domain, if it were to allow for some degree of freedom and tolerance among its members, ultimately the institution stands to gain.