When I was a senior in high school, I needed a math course to graduate, so I tried taking Plane Geometry–again. I had registered for the course as a sophomore, but after 2 weeks, I had found that I was totally lost. I could not understand the most basic axioms and theorems. So to avoid failing, I had dropped the course and taken Spanish.
This time, I was doing slightly better, and thought I might pass. Then, a few weeks into the semester, the nice old fellow who was teaching the class died suddenly of a heart attack. We got a substitute for a while, and then one day I walked in and there was a young man behind the desk who was fresh out of college. He looked a little like Noah Wyle. As I passed his desk, he looked at me, and there was an instant connection.
Nothing ever happened between us, though my girlfriend and I often fantasized about him. He stuck to the rules and did not fraternize with us, though he was pleasant enough when we did get to talk. But I wanted to please him with my work in class, so I studied ahead in the book. I chose difficult proofs to demonstrate at the blackboard. And during one class, I had the answer (in the form of a question) before he could issue the challenge. I even made 100 on the final exam!
He thought I was gifted. He brought me a Physics textbook to read when I had nothing to do during a study period he had given the class. The truth was that I had more mental energy and clarity than I had ever felt before regarding math and science because I had a great desire to learn it–to impress him. In the process I was actually learning to understand the subject and enjoy the clean logic of it.
The only other achievement I can compare it to is the 3 months I spent learning to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano. It is written in the key of C-sharp Minor, and it doesn’t get more difficult than that. But I wanted so badly to play it that I somehow read the music until I had the finger positions and the sound of it memorized, and I could play the piece, with feeling. After that, the music score became difficult to read again.
I know now that if I could get excited about calculating the area under an arched bridge, or compound interest on a savings account, I could learn to do it; I could open the door and let the new ideas in. But I am not at all excited by those tasks, so I cannot force the knowledge into my head no matter how hard I try.