Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Beautiful Mind

Earlier Friday evening, I went to Blockbuster Express to see what I could get for my free rental ("like" their Facebook page or sign-up on their website for a freebie). All they had was ultra-violent or ultra-kiddie or ultra-inane movies (some spanning all 3 "genres"!). 
But one movie stood out.
‎"A Beautiful Mind" (2001), starring Russell Crowe.

It is the true story of a Princeton mathematics student, John Nash, in the 1940s, who suffers from severe schizophrenia and delusions, and, eventually, overcomes his psychological difficulties, at least, to a degree, to become a professor at Princeton, and win a shared Nobel Prize for economics in 1994 (n.b., as of the date of this blog, he is still living in Princeton).

Near the end of the film, I had a bit of a revelation. I recalled a physics professor from my alma mater (Oswego State, NY, class of 1979) who dressed in winter clothing - - including the seemingly ubiquitous apparel for people deemed strange: the hunter's hat with attached ear flaps - - even at the height of spring semester warmth. He walked around campus carrying a cardboard box, containing odds and ends, hastily, if not haphazardly, tossed in. Understandably, everyone thought he was, for lack of a better word, "off".

Students repeated a story started by who-knows-who, that he had worked in a nuclear facility, and that he had been exposed to radiation, and was afraid that students might become radiated, so he kept his distance and to himself. Neither I nor anybody I knew, at the time, had the guts to ask him about it. He never allowed anyone closer than a few feet to him, and never shook anyones' hand, and I never saw him speak to anyone outside the classroom, so, perhaps, there was truth to the gossip.

He taught a freshman-level, "cake", course called "Light and Color", although the word "taught" is something of a stretch, in this case, because all he did in the first class was tell us to buy copies of his "book" (each was about 100 sheets of typewritten notes with diagrams) from the school store, and then he handed out a daunting-looking, 25-page, take-home, final exam, of which he encouraged us to simply copy the answers directly from his book, and that he would be available in the classroom (a small physics lab which he kept dark all the time) to answer any questions. The only rule for the answers was that they must be in complete English sentences, printed or typed, with accompanying diagrams, if applicable; the blank backs of the test as well as additional sheets of paper could be used for extra space, as long as the answer was clearly identified. The completed exam was to be put in a small cardboard box outside the classroom at any time throughout the semester.

There were a few errors in the book, and even a few omissions (i.e., questions on the exam of which the answers were nowhere to be found in his book, and a couple of questions couldn't even be answered from any book in the school library, if the student was so disposed), so it was necessary to see him on occasion, although those few questions, compared to the whole of the exam, were, for all intents and purposes, superfluous, if not totally meaningless, grade-wise. Even then, I wondered if he had those errors purposely put in to see if students bothered reading and understanding the material, and not merely copy from it. And, yes, I did go to the professor for some questions I could not figure out, and one paragraph in his book that I could not figure out. During those very few times, when I asked him a question, he wouldn't look me, but I could see a glint or spark of light in his eyes, and he would give me a short-and-simple response, and the spark would vanish. But, when I pressed him on one particular question, a very tiny smile appeared on his face, and he started to ask me questions, which, not being a physics student, I could barely understand, much less answer.

Since my life, at least to a degree, as a sometime, if not ersatz, artist, photographer, writer, reader, revolves around light and color - - even to the extent of being the eyes for the blind and disabled through my volunteer readings for a local radio station - - I wonder if this professor, whose name I have long since forgotten, had "A Beautiful Mind", and whether I misjudged him, as others have misjudged professor John Nash.

I am grateful that, even at this late age, I have learned something of a lesson in humanity, if not in the humanities, that people, like a book, truly, should not be judged by their cover, and that I shall strive to be more tolerant of those who may be deemed "strange" either by myself or society. In this, I include my father, a once brilliant man, who is suffering from Alzheimer's and slowly wastes away. And, I even include friends, whose quirks, until now, I may have passed off as mere personality traits, but who may see a brighter light than I will ever know.