"Where'd you lose the two points?" the voice boomed from the other side of the still-raised newspaper. The paper 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 and gone to Harvard at 15 with all 800's, finished undergrad by 18, done two years in the Marines in WW2 in the Pacific, and then Harvard Law in two years, those two missing points were not an option. He was not a perfectionist in the truest sense, just 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. 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 today, my father died. These are questions I took with me to Exeter, to RISD, and to 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. And actually, I do agree.
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.
I doggedly chased down my two points, much in the way Ned Hallowell talks of how talent is born of struggle. Funnily enough, the two points come 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’m in the summer house where we found my father was ill. Many things full circle.
The work is original, and if I’m lucky, it might just change the field I have applied it to. 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 not all serious. In fact, it can be very fun, because I make tools/games that help kids learn, and even learn how they learn, about the world around them. Sharing these tools with kids and seeing them work lights me up. I do this for kids, and love working with the youngest kids, because I am confident I can help them find their missing two points. My feeling is we are young when the big question in our life is born.
Is everyone chasing their own version of two points? If so, how old were you when you identified yours? Are they like Rilke’s Live Your Way into the Question form Letter to a Young Poet which Jerry had me read?
I put a beach stone on Atwood’s grave today, as I usually do. Except 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.