APRIL FOOL'S BOY
The first thing my April Fool's boy wanted from the great outside world was the moon. We stood at the window of the apartment together in the evening, with Billy in Boris' arms, and admired the moon over Central Park. Billy chuckled and reached for it. The next night when he found that the moon was not in the same place, he seemed disturbed. Trips to the window became a nightly ritual, and he was always pleased when he could see the "moo-n."
This led to Billy's mastering higher mathematics and planetary revolutions by the time he was eleven, and if that seems to be a ridiculous statement I can only say, "Well, it did."
When Billy was five months old, we bought him a high chair, and we decided to have him sit at the table, though the King of England or whoever, came to dine. He had all his meals with us from the time he was six months old. He couldn't creep, and he couldn't walk and he couldn't talk, but he could observe.
He observed us eat, and we gave him a spoon, and he tried to eat like us. For two months he hit his ear, and his eye with the spoon, and sometimes his food landed on his head. This made him angry, he never liked not to have things go. And I would then guide the spoon to his mouth. But after about two months, lo, he hit his mouth. Such a crowing, such triumph! He crowed so that I thought at first he had burnt his mouth, but I looked and his face was radiant with success. After that he fed himself.
"See," said Boris, "he has learned to coordinate those muscles. In the same way he can learn to think, by using his mind. Keep on feeding him like some mothers do, and he will still be eating from your hand when he is three years old. A baby is never too young to start learning anything."
For the first year of his life, I laid on the floor and rolled with Billy and talked to him and laughed at him.
During those years, around the turn or the century, the feminists were beginning to beat their drum, but their thumping did not appeal to me. A certain hazy thinking in those quarters made it seem that to get a woman to college and to the polls, it was necessary to take her out of the home and away from the intimate tasks of bringing up infants.
The reasoning seemed poor to me. I thought there was no more important thing in the world for me to do than to start my baby off in the world. Boris always liked women and he loved his home, so he never belittled me as a woman or domesticity as a role. In theory, he thought that men and women, as men and women, differ not a whit in mental processes--emotional drives, tradition and training make the differences. He made me proud of myself by his pride.
When we came back to New York after our first summer at Mount Hurricane, Boris said, "You must save up for a new winter coat for yourself."
Since he gave me all his salary, I had the saving of it, and before cold winter I had managed to put aside twenty dollars. One day I said to myself, "Now I will buy that coat," and then I said, "No!"
I bought some wool material, and two pounds of some cotton batting for 60 cents, and used my spring coat as a lining for a nice warm winter coat. Boris never knew the difference.
Then I took what was left of the twenty dollars and went out and bought blocks, and books and a little globe for Billy. There were many blocks with letters on them and pictures of common objects of our lives. Billy and I had something to play with that winter as we lay on the floor.
The first word he said was, "door."
"Why," I asked him later, when he could talk and explain, "do you like the door so much?"
"Door moves. People come," he answered.
So with his blocks we spelled "DOOR." I told him it was a picture of the word. He liked the idea, and as fast as he learned to talk, he learned to spell.
I always left the words he had spelled on the floor and started again until no one could walk in his room. Then we picked them up and started again.
Before he was two he would go gravely to the book case and pick out any book that a visitor asked for. This so amused and pleased them, that he soon took pleasure in opening the books and reading from them to his father and guests, and by the time he was three he read well.
When he asked me something that I didn't know, I would stop anything I was doing, and say, "Let's look it up." He would take down the child's encyclopaedia I had bought him, and look it up together.
After we had done this a few times, he asked me a question one day, and then triumphantly said, "But you will say, 'Let's look it up!' and I can look it up myself!"
"That is the last lesson I gave Billy. During the day he would go occasionally to his room and close the door and read. He never studied.
One day when he was about three I listened with astonishment from the kitchen to the purposeful slow thumping of the typewriter from his father's room. I didn't interrupt, and he brought me out a letter he had written. It was to a toy store, ordering toys.
"Now I am very old, like Daddy, because I can typewrite. Maybe I am a hundred years old," he told me.
He was delighted by my surprise, and proud to show me how he had pulled his high chair up to the typewriter when he found he couldn't reach it from his daddy's chair. "Won't Daddy be surprised!" he crowed.
His father's surprise was his greatest incentive.
I suppose one of the great moments of his infancy was when he sidled into the room early one evening after Boris had returned from a week's trip to Chicago. Company was there and Billy held a book behind his back until a lull in the conversation.
"Does anyone here happen to know any Latin?" he asked innocently.
"Yes, I know a little," someone replied.
"Here," said Billy, bursting with excitement, and thrusting a copy of Caesar's Gallic Wars into the visitor's hands. "I can read it, let me show you!"
So Billy read the first page, and said, "Oh, Daddy, aren't you surprised?"
"I am indeed," said his astonished father.
He had taught himself to read Latin by using my old pony. It seemed to him a pleasant game indeed to read the English version and then match it with the Latin words.
A few months after that, while exploring his father's books, he peeked into Plato and said, "Daddy, why are these letters different from regular letters?"
Boris taught him the Greek alphabet and then Billy taught himself to read Homer with the aid of the pony. Greek is Greek to me, and his father, though he held the Old Greeks in higher regard than any race, was not a Greek scholar. But Billy became really fluent in the language, and scholars told m that he spoke it beautifully and accurately.
He was all the more delighted at learning Greek, for it meant to him a step nearer the gods of myth. That there was a Greece beside the Greece of magnificent stories he learned from a toothache when he was about five.
It was in the summer and we were in the mountains. At dinner he complained of a bad toothache, and there was no dentist within miles. Billy had been interested in some typed copies of some of the lectures his father had given on Aristotle when he was at Harvard, and had asked Boris about them.
After dinner Boris said, "Come with me Billy, and we will go for a walk and I will tell you about Aristotle and logic."
This was to distract his mind from his toothache. It was more than an hour before they returned, and Billy was radiant.
He ran to me. "Now I know all about logic!" he said.
But mostly he taught himself.
He was a good little boy, very gay and full of bounce. He had good manners. I don't like children who shriek and interrupt and are rude and hostile to guests. In teaching him not to do these things I never punished him. If he infringed upon the rules of politeness, I told him with absolute sincerity, "Billy, I should have told you before, and it is my fault for not telling you, but people do not do thus and so---." I tried never to make him feel bad or ashamed.
I taught Billy to count and to add, again lying on the floor with the blocks. For a while after he learned to count his greeting to a new visitor would be, "You have six buttons on your dress," or five, or four buttons. The surprise of the visitors when they checked up and found he was right pleased him enormously.
When he was three, Mrs. Isidor Strauss, who lived just across from our Central Park apartment, used to send over and ask to borrow Billy for a party occasionally. He would crawl under the table, tickle the guests' ankles, be plied with cakes. Then Mrs. Strauss would sit him on the table and ask him to tall her guests the day of the week on which they were born, when they gave him the date and the year. This Billy had taught himself to do from the Book of Knowledge, and it amused him.
The Strauss family wars our friends through their son, Jessie. Boris had helped Jessie in philosophy at Harvard, and Jessie thought my husband hung the moon. They were fine people, generous philanthropists throughout their life and especially in their death. Mr. and Mrs. Strauss died in the sinking of the Titanic. Both refused seats in the crowded lifeboats, and we were told that they said that younger people should have the seats, that they were old enough to die.
These were the people among whom Billy lived for the first four years of his life. He played occasionally with other children, but until he went to school he thought that all other children knew as much as he did, and had the same interests that he did. This led him into occasional rude shocks and distress, when another small child would tear out the pages of a book.
He never played games to any extent because he did not live in an environment where proficiency in sports was praised, or where there was much opportunity for that sort of play. "Foot-ball player" was a term of good-natured contempt with Boris. Our daughter Helen was to be in her childhood a desirable addition to the team when the boys played front-yard baseball and football. But apartment house living and his adored father's indifference to athletics kept Billy from ever becoming interested in sports.
Beginning a few years after the time of which I now write, Billy was to be an object of much controversy and discussion in the newspapers and among psychologists. He went through formal education like he was jet-propelled. When he grew to be a man he flatly refused all opportunity to acquire money or fame, and he had many. So a good deal of newsprint has been used up in discussing him.
Sometimes it hardly seems to me, when I leaf through some of those clippings about Billy, that they are describing a person I know. He was sketched as a puny boy who wore horn-rimmed spectacles and studied twelve hours a day. Billy was always big for his age, he had the build of a truck-driver, and he was never sick a day in his childhood. He never wore glasses, he never studied in the usual sense of the word. After he learned to read I stopped teaching him, and he taught himself. He used to go into his room with a book and read for an hour or two every day, whenever he wanted to. But it was rarely for more than an hour.
It has been written that Boris "laid down a course of study for him in infancy." Nothing could be sillier. We tried to cultivate his curiosity on all subjects, and when he asked to answer fully, and to lead him to a greater curiosity so that he would go and find out for himself. But we never tried to push him an inch along any mental path in which he was not interested.
What teaching he had during those first four years I gave him. The methods I used were Boris' methods. The methods Boris used were nothing more or less than those of Socrates'. The whole secret of Billy's education was that we planted in him early a love of learning.
Boris said and wrote flatly, time after time, "This boy's progress in education was made because of the environment in which he has been reared, not because he is a 'genius'."
At a recent party on Miami Beach we were discussing elementary and high school education,. and I gave as my opinion that the twelve years the average child spends in reaching high school graduation could be cut in half by a sensible revision of our educational methods. The hours of the school day could be cut in half, too, I said, and our children could be happier and learn more. I pointed to the experience of my family.
"But Dr. Sidis," a bright young psychiatrist told me severely, "you and your family were geniuses! Your accomplishment is not possible to ordinary people!"
He was really angry and irritated, and I thought it so very funny, for he seemed to want to say, "You are a stupid woman not to realize you are a genius!"
Educators and psychologists who did not know any of us have always taken that attitude toward our experience in e education. They decided that Billy was a genius, a fluke, and a skeleton in the closet of education.
We said, "Billy is a bright boy, but there are a million bright boys and girls in America who could do the same thing he had done in the same environment."
This always made people angry who did not know us. Now, Boris and I understood why this antagonism and misunderstanding grew up between the world and Billy Sidis, but even though we understood, it was distressing to us.
A mother says to herself proudly, "My Jane is very smart because she is just three years old and knows her alphabet!"
Then she reads in the paper that there is a little boy named Billy Sidis who when he was three years old read English and Latin and Greek.
She says to herself, because her pride is hurt, "What an awful horrible little boy, he must have been puny and rude and I couldn't stand to have him around!"
Today I can and do go about here and there talk to young mothers who have children in elementary schools. So many say to me, "There is something so wrong with our schools. Six year olds sit from 8:30 to two o'clock in the afternoon in overcrowded rooms, with forty and fifty other children in the room. They have to sit still, and they can't ask questions, and somehow it is all so wrong. Isn't there a better way?"
Young women say that to me as a person, when they know me, because they can see that I care about people and children, and care very deeply.
But when Boris wrote that there is something dreadfully wrong with our schools, the parents or these same young women and their husbands were very angry and rose up in arms. For it seemed like to them then that a supercilious high-brow and an outsider was criticizing their treatment of their children.
Americans pride themselves on giving their children the best. School bond issues almost always carry. And young parents think desperately today, as they did more than fifty years ago, "But if these millions and millions and millions that we have voted to tax ourselves for our children are not buying them the best education in the world, what are we to do?"
Boris wrote, in effect, "Teach your children, as my wife and I taught our son! Save yourselves millions, and give them a decent education!"
By the time he came to write his scathing denunciation of educational methods in "Philistine and Genius" he was angry himself about the whole subject, and not at all tactful.
He pulled down upon his stout head, and upon Billy who was so very young--the anger that comes from hurt pride. Educators, psychologists, editorial writers and newspaper readers were furious with him. And their fury was a factor in Billy's life upon which we had not counted.
It is because of all this, and what came later, that I want to write so clearly about those first four years of Billy's life, which were entirely pleasant and peaceful and happy.
The real secret was that at first he wanted to please and surprise the daddy he worshipped. And like all normal little fellows, he wanted often to be the center of attention. He found that learning things made him the center,. and this was his stimulant. Afterwards he needed no stimulant. Learning was in itself a pleasure.
Most school teachers will confess privately that all elementary education is simply teaching a child to read, and implanting in him pleasure in learning. After that he teaches himself everything. That was all I did for Billy.
Many mothers with whom I have discussed this flinch from the idea of teaching their own child. It seems to them hard and dull. But I had a great advantage over most mothers--I had never been to primary school or high school.
Learning had been all a pleasure and a privilege to me, because I had been denied it. Most American mothers have sat still for so many hours in hot dull, crowded school rooms, that deep in their hearts they loath anything to do with schools. Boredom and monotony have driven rusty nails into their brains. Their curiosity has been damped and their good minds dulled by repetition and by fear.
It is curious to me that modern psychologists do not agree with me about my son's education. Modern obstetricians say that without fear a mother may have a painless child birth. Without fear Billy had a painless education.