I was in fifth grade at Bennett Elementary School in Detroit. I seldom went to school, and when I did I rarely cooperated, so the teachers made me sit in the hall or sent me to the library just to get rid of me.
I hated school and had a low opinion of anyone—teacher or student—who participated in what I deemed a culturally imposed prison. So I found a way to punish my jailers. In the library, I would grab a popular book—say, Moby Dick or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—and when no one was looking, I’d rip out the last five pages. That way, whoever had invested all those hours reading the story would never know the ending.
Trapped in the library one day, I came across the book, and I do mean the book. This was the book that changed my life. It connected me to the vast universe and to the unimaginably tiny particles that make it up. It described everything: light, sound, gravity, heat, electricity, the workings of atoms, and even the theory of relativity. The book, The Boy Scientist, by John Lewellen (1955), had to be mine. I couldn’t borrow it or take the chance that some other young vandal would destroy it, so I slipped it into my jeans and walked out after class.
That semester, because of ongoing misconduct, I was transferred to Harms Elementary School. But the book was mine. And it has since traveled with me around the world, to be read and reread over the years. Although I’ve legitimately acquired many other books since then, none of them ever had such a magical effect on me. The book taught me that I wasn’t a freak, that I was just different. And what’s more, if given a chance to study something I cared about, I actually loved learning!
But that opportunity to study would have to wait. For the time being, my sights were set on the U.S. Army paratroops. Meanwhile, in my dreams, I continued to imagine grabbing an electron or proton and putting it to my mouth to find out, does subatomic matter have any taste?