Each of us remembers certain special moments as a
student, and I do, too, from my undergraduate days at MIT. Two in particular stand out--one when I learned a special lesson from a professor and the other when I learned from myself.
I had an unusually rigorous professor, who at one class meeting gave us a complex take-home assignment. To do it correctly would require not only extensive study but also three particular books.
It was a morning class so I decided to go to the library immediately after lunch, before the other students. But when I arrived at the library at 1 p.m., I found that all copies of the books already had been checked out.
Then I called the Boston Public Library, but the circulation desk said I would have to come in person to find if a book was in the library. Even though it was a bitter winter day, I took the bus and subway, only to find, after an hour's wait, that the books already had been checked out from it, too.
Desperate by then, I decided to try the Harvard Library. After finding my way through the maze of the Harvard card catalogues, I was told that: Yes, Harvard did have the books; but, no, I could not check them out, because I wasn't a Harvard student. I therefore cleverly decided to find a Harvard friend, who could check out the volumes for me. For the next few hours, I scurried around Cambridge looking for such a person. Finally I found one and we went back to the Harvard Library. But, alas, by then it was shut.
My paper was due the next day. I reasoned that, after all, I had made a valiant effort, one well beyond the norm. And I was sure the professor would commend me on my diligence and ingenuity, even though I'd been unsuccessful. Instead of the report, I wrote out the saga of my effort and turned it in.
At the next class meeting, the professor gave it back, marked "F." Trembling with rage, I spoke to him after class. I explained passionately about the efforts I had made, as well as how unrealistic the assignment had been in the first place. He showed no emotion whatsoever, until I finished. Then, he quietly said: "Young man, the books were not available in our library at 1 because your more enterprising classmates had gone to the library first, then had eaten lunch. The books were not available at the Boston Public Library because still other class members had got there before you. In short, Mr. Berendzen, you have told me your problems. Now I would like to hear your solutions. What counts is not unending explanations of how you tried but failed, or why it was not your fault anyway, or how no one could have done better. What ultimately counts is that you get the job done."
For days afterwards, I fumed. Now, years afterwards, I cannot recall the professor's name or the course's title. But I shall remember that small incident always.
I also remember well my first day as an undergrad at MIT. Coming from a fairly humble background in East Dallas, I found myself at Cambridge, surrounded by students who had graduated from the top prep schools and by professors of international stature -- famous authors, advisers to presidents, Nobel laureates. While the more cosmopolitan students carried green book bags and wore jeans, I had a vinyl briefcase and a polyester suit; I resembled an awning salesman. Nonetheless, I was determined not to be intimidated or let my nervousness show. I was going to be bold and aggressive.
As I wandered the labyrinthine corridors, I became totally disoriented. Ultimately, I came to the end of a long hall, filled with professors and other awesome-looking persons. It seemed to me that they all were staring directly at me. Determined to display complete self-confidence, I randomly chose an important looking door with no name on it, knocked, and entered -- and found I was in a janitor's closet!
As I shut the door behind me, I was sure at least a thousand people were roaring with laughter. I stood there in the closet -- humiliated, in semi-darkness, surrounded by buckets, mops, brooms. I tried to think what a young Newton or Jefferson would have done under the circumstances, but I concluded that a young Newton or Jefferson or anyone else sensible wouldn't have gotten himself into such a ridiculous situation.
I quietly stood there for what seemed like weeks, hoping the people who'd seen me walk into the closet would leave and I could escape in private. Then, a terrifying thought struck me: What if I waited in the closet too long and they came to see if I was okay or if I'd committed suicide? Afterall, a well-balanced person wouldn't spend his day standing in a janitor's closet . . .
Finally, I decided to rejoin the outside world -- the one outside the closet. And I resolved to do so with dignity. I opened the door confidently; carefully surveyed the pails, the soap, the rags; and haughtily gave the scene a wise, knowing nod.
As I turned around, a dozen people were staring at me, uncertain if I was a young custodian, a lost student, or a weird prodigy. I figured I'd leave them guessing, so I said to no one in particular and to everyone in general: "All's well here. You can proceed!"
In one brief afternoon, I taught myself humility, resourcefulness, and not to enter unmarked doors.