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Euclid in Three Weeks
Sometimes to frighten myself I imagine what my life would have been like had I not met Boris, and had I married the jeweler's son who promised that be would let me finish high school and get me two servants. I didn't love the jeweler's son, and I didn't believe he would let me finish high school.
When I was sixteen I had a mind as hungry as a little fledgling bird that gapes all day for food. What went into it was what Boris put there. And there was so much more than that!
When I try to recapture him, even for myself, a swirl of emotion troubles my heart and makes my memories unsteady. Only Dostoievski could really re-create him, for he was straight out of a novel Dostoievski meant to write. The novel had a happy ending, though, because Boris came to America.
This young man with the gay blue eyes and the strong face and the gentle manner was a true product of a period of Russian history that produced a great burst of Genius.
Dostoievski, Turgenev, Tchekov and Tolstoi were men of the same stamp. Any reader who has moved in the strange, true, world of their books will recognize him instantly. When I sketch Boris' youth, as he told it to me and as his brothers and sisters later described it to me when I visited Russia in 1929, those who know the pre-revolutionary Russian novelists will identify the spiritual attitude of those years immediately.
He was born in Berdichev, near Kiev, in the Ukraine, about 1870. His father was moderately wealthy, an intellectual and a liberal who read Spencer, Darwin and Huxley. Boris had a governess until he was eight, and than a tutor until he went away to a private academy when he was sixteen. At his elbow were always all the intellectual resources of western civilization, and before his eyes in the world around him was the black and squalid night of barbaric ignorance.
It was against the law to teach peasants to read.
I have said that the Ukranian is the happy Russian, the gay Russian, and he surely is that. Many times in the summer when I was a child I saw peasants spending the night in the harvest fields. They waked up at dawn, mowed till dark and cooked their meals in the fields. Mothers took their nursing babies there with them. They worked sixteen hours a day at this heavy, mindless work.
And I saw them many times slumped around the cook-fire after supper, in the fatigue that is a perfect anesthetic. But let someone start a tune, a little tune, on a mouth organ and soon a man rises, staggering and heavy in his tiredness.
"Let's dance," he says, and drags a woman to her feet. So they dance, and soon their feet are flying.
That was Russia 70 years ago. There was this great, bubbling life in its strong people, but their minds were shackled with ignorance. The mortality rate at that time was very great, and only the strong survived. Between the rulers and the ruled was a brutal enmity. Officialdom was simply terrified of this brute it had inherited shackled, this strong ignorant peasant.
The Russian young man of any heart and intellect of that day was aghast at the world into which he found himself born. The intellectual could do two things: he could write and he could teach.
From the deep revulsion that the free minds of Russia felt towards this enslavement of men's spirits came some of the most powerful novels the world has ever read. All that the Russian liberal could do was to describe what he saw. He could mirror life, real life, and hope that homo tyrannus might feel a revulsion toward his role of tyrant when he saw what he did.
Reading a novel of Turgenev's made Alexander II free the serfs.
Dostoievski's writing brought him ten years in Siberia. Brutal, bitter men, even then, wanted to change things with bombs and bullets. Boris always thought they were stupid.
"Shoot a tyrant," he said, "and you get a greater tyrant in his place. The man who comes to his position by violence always has the smell of gun-powder in his nostrils. He remembers how he came to his place, is afraid, and is more cruel than his predecessor."
Bolder than these men of violence were those who wanted to change things by writing and teaching. For the violent men worked under cover, the liberal and the intellectual worked in the open, trying to teach Russians to reason. Czarist officials looked on both with equal suspicion.
After he died I found among his papers, among other poems he had written in Russian before he came to this country, the poem that follows. I asked Billy to translate it for me, for I never read Russian.
It is adolescent, but there is such a strong
adolescence in it! His rebellion and idealism is dear and moving to me. Ten
years later he was to write his "Psychology of Suggestion," which because
of its scientific clarity and originality was translated into Russian and was still
studied there when I visited the country.
is the poem:
Here is young Boris Sidis born into this world with his warm heart and good mind. When he is in his mid teens, with a handful other boys of his age and persuasion, he goes into the fields on Sunday and teaches the peasants to read. The other youngsters called him "The Little Father".
This was when he was seventeen. His brothers told me that the family could be traced back through Russian history for 800 years, and that in almost every generation there was one brilliant man. They said that in their own time it was Boris.
At eight he knew several languages, and was well read in history, always one of his favorite studies. He planned to study at the University of Moscow, so when he was seventeen he enrolled at the academy at Kishinev. It was a preparatory school, a junior college.
With him were the same group of a dozen or so boys who had been teaching the peasants to read at home. They boarded at the same house, and continued their Sunday afternoon teaching.
They had been three weeks in school when their rooms were raided by the Czarist police because of this strange behavior. All of them were jailed. Two were hanged as an object lesson for the others, before they found out that Boris was the leader of the group.
Then the governor had him brought to his home from the dungeon. He gave him clean clothes, allowed him to bathe, dined him royally.
"Now," said the governor. "tell me what this plot was all about, and you will go free. Confess and you will be saved."
(Russia has always been a land so melodramatic that it is hard to believe the things that happen there are true when you look back on them from sensible shores.)
"There was no plot," said Boris. "There is nothing to confess. Back he went, this time to torture of various morbid sorts. After some weeks of this he became unconscious. When he was again aware of the world around him ho was in the prison hospital and the attendants informed him of the date. He found he had lost two months out of his life somewhere in that prison. After had recovered sufficiently to be put into solitary confinement, he was put there, and there he remained for the rest of his two years in prison.
During this time, Boris' father and the fathers of some of the boys had been using all the influence they possessed to have the boys released. Finally, he and the two others who had not sent to Siberia or killed, were paroled.
The terms of his parole were that he should never leave his hometown again, and should report to the parole officer each day. Since he had been a political prisoner, all schools were closed to him. This situation was quite unendurable, so he persuaded his father to arrange that he should go to the United States.
The Russian parole system must have been as primitive as its prisons, for I never heard that his father suffered because Boris left Russia.
A freer and braver man never came to this land of the free and home of the brave. He always said that he owed his courage and his ability to reason to his imprisonment. It was very strange to me to ponder this statement.
For he had a buoyancy, and a lightness and an ease of spirit that those who met him recognized even before they realized he had a fine mind. Strange children looked into his eyes and sat on his lap. All the considerations that fetter most men did not disturb him--considerations that are based on a fear of being cold, or hungry, or out of a job, or being ridiculed, or of dying.
He had had all of those things--he had been all but dying—and he knew they were nothing to be afraid of. He had walked the valley of the shadow of death. When he came out on the other side, everything looked so good to him that he was full of happiness for the rest of his life.
Now, in finest theory it ought to be possible for a brave man to be imprisoned for his convictions, and to emerge unscathed, purified of gross and worldly cares. This happens so rarely in actual life. The innocent are punished, and they are embittered and frightened. Boris wasn't embittered. He had a good, thumping, first-rate anger against tyranny, but he had that before he was jailed.
The anger didn't embitter him, or twist him, because it was not a selfish anger. To tyranny he could say, "You can't hurt me, nothing you can do can hurt me. Some people you can hurt with your dungeons and torture, and it is for them I am angry!"
When he was in solitary confinement, he was not allowed to have either books or paper and pencil. Then, he said, he learned to think. He learned to construct and follow logical lines of reasoning, to carry them in his mind, to interest himself in problems of men and their behavior so that he quite forgot where he was.
That was Boris' secondary education.
Prison was what made his face
glow the day he came home and told me, "We have abolished the straitjacket for the
State of New York's insane!"
All that prison hurt in him was his body. While he was a stocky, well-built man, his health was not always excellent. He never considered that he had anything like my physical energy and endurance.
When he arrived in New York, he got a job in a hat factory in New Jersey. He worked there a week, made five dollars, and figured that he could live on that amount for two weeks. So he quit the job and spent two weeks reading in the public library, living on herring and stale bread. That was Boris' idea of a good life.
His quitting cannot have disturbed the hat factory foreman much, because he was one of the most helpless men at manual work I have ever known. His fingers flew at the typewriter, but he had not the slightest interest in any other manual skill.
After a few months in New York, he gravitated to Boston, for he discovered that of all the cities of America that was the one in which men and women cared most for things of the mind. When he first went into the Boston Public Library, he said, he felt as though the gates of heaven had opened to him.
For a while he followed his New York scheme of "work a week, study two weeks." He did not need the kind of security that make most men afraid to give up little jobs that mean nothing except a living. He did not mind living on very little, if he could have access to books.
He was bold enough to feel that he could always get some sort of job when he had to. Then he found that he could make a few dollars a week tutoring students who wished to enter Harvard, and teaching other young Russian immigrants. His students paid him for an hour in the evening, but, they usually talked until the last street car had run, and they had to walk home.
It was to this young man I went with my plans for learning enough to enter night high school classes. It must have been two or three months before I knew that I loved him, for at first I was so much in awe of a young man so wise end learned and kind.
He was such a good teacher! He made it all so easy, not only for me, but everyone who he ever taught. He was never angry, never impatient, never irritated, never sarcastic or unkind. He was always encouraging. He made every student think that certainly he could do the task which he had set himself, and more besides. And they did.
Harry Linenthal was in that small class with me, preparing to enter high school. Dr. Linenthal met me at the plane when I flew to Boston from Miami for an emergency operation a few years ago. He met me at the plane when I flew to Boston from Miami for an emergency operation a few years ago. He met me and made all the hospital arrangements and teased me because I had bought a round-trip plane ticket. I knew that I was very sick, but I knew I wasn't going to die. It had been a long friendship there, that began in Boris' cold attic rooms.
For that Boston winter Boris needed an overcoat, and he had no money. He inquired of prices of the cheapest at the establishment of a little forty-year-old tailor who lived near him. When he found the coats too dear, the tailor fell into conversation with him, and it was revealed that the tailor had one ambition, which he thought impossible. The tailor wanted to learn to read in order to be able to read Spinoza. Since he was illiterate, it is hard to imagine how the rumor of this philosopher had reached him and why it had so charmed him.
Boris made a deal with the tailor--he would teach him to read Spinoza, and the tailor would in return make him overcoat. That winter Boris taught him to read. Within a year the tailor bad been elected head of a labor union. Boris kept warm in that overcoat, and both thought they had made a fine deal.
So I worked for Sewing Machine Company for ten hours a day, and studied with Boris three evenings a week. Also, we would meet on the Boston common, and sit on a bench and talk.
After some months of this, I said to him, I think I will find out if I can be admitted to night school classes, and take two years of work there, and get my high school diploma. Then I will he able to enter Boston Medical school.
That was the goal on which I had set my heart.
"Certainly you can do the work," he said.
I went to the teacher in charge of admittances, and to this day I remember how she ridiculed me, and how she hurt me.
"You are being absurd," she said. "You have never been to primary school, and you think you can graduate from high school in two years! It is ridiculous, and we cannot admit you under those conditions. Nobody has ever done it."
"She says I am ridiculous," I told Boris.
"Maybe it's better this way," he said. New York state board examinations for high school students will be given in three weeks. You can pass them, and then you won't have to go to high school at all.
"But algebra and geometry are among those examinations," I said, "and I do not know what they are all about."
"We will study, you can do it," he told me confidently, and it was then that he asked for the 25 cents to buy a second-hand copy of Euclid.
"I will explain to you the first five theorems in geometry," he told me. "And then you with your good mind will work out the rest of them just a s Euclid did. Don't try to memorize. Just try to understand, and then you can't help remembering.
I propped the Euclid up above the sink. and studied while I washed dishes.
With Algebra he did the same thing. He picked unerringly on the salient features of the subject, and explained how if I knew them I could quite clearly and logically reason out the way to do anything a problem required me to do with an equation.
My family was not helpful. "If you take these examinations you will be very silly, and you will make us a laughing-stock among our friends. Nobody does such things. Who do you think you are?" Everybody said these things but Ida.
One would think I had committed a gross error in good taste in wanting an education so strongly as I did! But by then I had an ally who was not to leave me until his death!
I quit my job with Singer Sewing Machine company to take the exams. I never had any trouble getting a job, and that didn't worry me. By the Fall River line I went to New York again, and paid $1 to a friend to let me sleep on a cot in her room for the week that the tests lasted.
When I returned, my family said, "See, were you not a silly thing?"
"Let us wait and hear," I answered.
It was not long before a card came from the examining board saying that I had passed all my exams with an "H". I had to ask what the "H" meant, and found it meant "Honors."