"Where'd you lose the two points?" the voice boomed from the other side of the newspaper. It could have been either The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, which he read from cover to cover every day. In his pajamas. With coffee that he sipped from a white and blue flowered teacup that sat on the table next to his dark blue armchair.
It was 6th grade, 9:40 am, and I'd just had my first exam: a two-hour math test that I'd finished in thirty minutes with a score of 98 and quickly run home to tell my dad about. I hadn't thought that the two missing points would be a big deal. I was all about the 98 I'd found.
From a man who'd skipped two grades, gone to Harvard at 16 with all 800's, finished undergrad by 18, done 3 years with the Marines in the Pacific during WW2, and then completed Harvard Law in 2 years, those two missing points were not an option. He was not a perfectionist: he was smart enough to know that truly smart people know what they don't know. Then they crawl all over it and make it theirs. If it's knowable.
A few years later I asked him, "What is success?" He replied, "When people in your field can only discuss it with your contribution as integral to the development of that field." I was 14, and this was a big thought I'd not be able to make much headway on for a while. I wanted to make sure I fully got what he was saying, so I asked, "What's the most valuable thing you can do?" He replied, "Be an original thinker."
Two years later, and thirty-two years ago on the day I wrote this during the summer, my father died. His questions are questions I took with me to Exeter, RISD, and the many other places I've been. I've chewed on them inside and out to see if I agree. Bounced them off some very interesting people.
I actually do.
I doggedly chased down my two points, much in the way Ned Hallowell talks of how talent is born of struggle. Funny enough, those two points came from my 6th grade struggle with biology, though it took a while to identify that. It was a huge relief to find them, which happened when I became a mother. By coincidence, my daughter has just finished 6th grade herself. And I wrote this in the summer house where we learned my father was ill. Many things full circle.
Finding the "two points" in one's life can be a thorn in the paw or a great inspiration. For me, they have been more than either. They have meant reaching inside to find out what I can do to make a difference. The work I do is original, can be very fun, and if I'm lucky, it might just change the field I have applied it to. I make tools and games that help kids learn -- and learn how they learn -- about the world around them. Sharing these tools with kids and seeing them work lights me up.
My feeling is we are young when the big question in our life is born, and I do this for kids, and love working with the youngest ones, because I am confident I can help them find their missing two points.
I put a beach stone on Atwood's grave this summer, as usual. Except this time, I put two on and winked. I chose large stones, and felt how my two points no longer weighed anything inside me. They're out in the world working. How I wish he could see the work he inspired.
The voice from the blue armchair, behind the newspaper, rings in my head now and then. Are you doing your best? What don't you know, and do you know why you don't know it? Are you contributing original thoughts? Changing your field? I now see the questions "Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?" and "Do you know why you are here?" as two sides of one coin. You flip it, you decide.
Is everyone chasing their own version of two points? If so, how old were you when you identified yours?