I Was a Genius, Once

I would have like to have been a genius. To have been one to accomplish something great. I studied mathematics in college. The history of mathematics is full of geniuses. Of course there is Newton and Leibniz who seem to get most the credit for inventing calculus, and if you know anything about mathematics, it seems like everything important is some kind of calculus. So basically these guys laid the foundation for all of modern mathematics. Speaking of calculus, I heard a broadcast on NPR about how President Obama has been using calculus, and I was like, “What is he even talking about? The calculus of the situation? What exactly is he integrating to figure this stuff out?” I mean I know about some real world applications of calculus from some physics classes I took, but political stuff, that is way beyond my meager knowledge. I don’t even know what you would do the calculus on, the statistics or something I guess.

In any case, I studied mathematics, and so I’m aware of the work of geniuses. And believe me, it boggles my mind. The mere fact that someone can invent that stuff blows me away. That’s what I liked most about mathematics, I suppose, knowing that it’s invented. Mathematics doesn’t really occur naturally in nature. There is no cosmic force that says 1 plus 1 is 2. I know you probably think that, “Of course 1 and 1 makes 2. If you have 1 apple then put another 1 apple beside it, then you have 2 apples.” I can agree that you do have 2 apples, but the only reason we call it 2 is because that is how the mathematics was designed. Did you know in some worlds 1 plus 1 equals 10? Yes indeed. In a world not too far from our own it is 10. What I’m saying is that there is all sorts of different mathematics for all sorts of different applications, and all of it exists because someone invented the mathematics to apply to that situation.

Anyway, I digress. What I really want to write about is genius, because I was a genius, once…

When I was young, my mom had a couple of train sets. They were just sort of sitting in our basement, all boxed up. I don’t know if she wanted to make miniature landscapes like so many people do or what, but she wasn’t doing anything with them. I was just a young lad, so naturally I saw them as toys and wanted to play with them, but my mom told me and my brother that we couldn’t play with them because they weren’t toys and we’d break them. One day, however, due to our excessive begging, or the fact that she realized she was never going to do anything with them, she caved and told us we could play with trains.

And so we set them up. They were broken by the end of that day. Yeah, my mom was right. We broke them, and then we had no trains to play with. It was very sad indeed. In all fairness, though, it was better that those trains had the little life we gave them than the lack of life that they would have had, had we not taken them out of the boxes.

And so the trains remained motionless, the tracks sitting in our playroom, the trains just sort of laying there on their sides. Boy did I want to play with them, though. I loved trains, and I especially loved trains that I could control. And so me and my brother were sitting in the playroom one day, and I stood up and declared, “Eureka! I’m going to get those trains to work. We will be running them by nightfall.” Okay, so I didn’t say exactly that, but I really wanted those trains running.

As a lad, I didn’t really understand how things worked. My brain wasn’t developed at all. I understood simple concepts like unscrewing things, and putting pieces together that obviously matched, but beyond that I had no knowledge of electric current or anything. What I did know was that things had to be plugged in or have batteries to work.

The trains themselves didn’t have batteries. Instead the tracks were plugged into the wall. I therefore deduced that somehow the tracks gave the train power, and if the trains weren’t working then maybe it was because they had no power, and if they had no power, then something must be wrong with getting power from the tracks to the train. And lo! I noticed that on the bottom side of the train engine was a little piece of metal that was supposed to make contact with the track, but it had broken off. And there I had it! I knew what the problem with the train was.

I realized that somehow that piece of metal needed to make contact with the tracks or the trains wouldn’t move. So I did the only logical thing to do. I bent what little metal was left so that it would make contact with the track, and sure enough it worked! The trains were running, and my brother declared, “You are a genius!” And I said, “I am?” And he said, “Yes, a genius!” And I was like, “What’s a genius?” And he was like, “Someone who does smart things.” And I was like, “I’m a genius!”

Now I know that in reading this you might be thinking my brother was speaking sarcastically. Understand that he wasn’t. He was genuinely happy that I had gotten the trains running again. We both wanted them running, and they were, and hence, as far as he was concerned, I was a genius. I loved hearing that word, “Genius!” I hadn’t even known what a genius was, and there I was, being called one. Me, a genius! I said the word over and over again. I liked the word. I wanted it to be true.

We broke the trains again that very day. They were pretty fun, fragile, though.

I never really was a genius again after that, sadly. I mean in high school and college people thought I was smart, but I always reflected back to that train. When I fixed that train I truly discovered something on my own. I didn’t have a teacher or mentor or book to show me what to do. All I had was what was before me. All I had was my own observations of the situation, and I seized the moment. I’m okay with not being a genius now, though. To have been a genius in the eyes of another once, is enough for me.

Was I really even a genius then? I don’t know, probably not. I kind of wonder what a real genius is. I’m loathe to give out the word to anyone. I don’t think it’s enough to have an eidetic memory or knowing a lot of things. I think a genius is one who sees something that other people haven’t been able to see. To solve a problem that no one else has solved, as the mathematicians of old did. Before fixing that train, others had probably fixed trains as well, but I did see something that, at least, my brother didn’t see. If there had been only two people in the world in that moment, then I was a genius. I wonder if there really are people that are “geniuses” or if it’s just “moments of genius” that people sometimes have, like I did.