It was an extraordinarily rotten school day. Like the rest of my eleventh-grade classmates, I had to spend one frosty October morning taking the PSAT exam. Although I was a dutiful high honors student with a skyrocketing GPA, I typically crumbled during standardized testing. With college applications looming, it didn’t help that my father had drilled into my head that GPAs, recommendations, personal essays, and extracurricular activities were trivial compared to an extravagantly high score on a national test. It also didn’t help that before I left for school that morning, there had been a call from Stockholm. My dad had just been awarded a Nobel Prize. I hadn’t even heard the phone ring at dawn, but I knew something big was up, since he never got up as early as I did. But on this morning he was floating around the house in his thin, white pajamas from Sears, as embarrassing as ever (I often wished my family believed in robes like those perfect TV families). Yet that morning Dad’s pjs were kind of incandescent. Meanwhile, my mom was trying to stick to routine; I could see her in the kitchen fixing a plate of toast–my usual measly breakfast. Although it was still dark outside, the school bus would be by any minute to pick me up. So I cut to the chase and blurted out to them both, “Dad just won the Nobel Prize, didn’t he?” (There were always rumors he might.) They seemed simultaneously impressed with my intuition and oddly dismissive of it. They told me not to tell anyone YET and just get to school and concentrate on the test. They apologized that this exciting news happened to come on the same day as the rest of my life was to be decided. I left, I stayed, I left, I stayed; it was one of those out-of-time moments. My mom had used a paper towel to wrap up what was left of my toast into a perfect, snowy square. It felt more like a parting gift than a to-go breakfast. It was clear then that they couldn’t wait for me to leave, so they could properly soak in the moment. Alone. With me around they seemed obliged to underplay it.
Being a good soldier, I did what they said. Well, I tried to anyway. I kept quiet and fumbled my way (more than usual) through the hours of testing. Raised from an early age to revere the Nobel Prize as other children revered Jesus, it crossed my percolating mind just before the test started that perhaps this test really didn’t count for much in the grand scheme of life, and maybe given my father’s now international prestige in physics, I was smarter than I thought I was. Perhaps I would do better this time! I was wrong. I ended up doing worse on the test than I thought possible, disappointing pretty much everyone when the results came in the mail weeks later, but surprisingly, not so much myself. When I look back on that complicated morning I realize this was my initiation into my father’s vulnerability. Immediately after testing it was time for homeroom.My secret news surprisingly became public when our principal came over the PA system to crackle his way through his usual list of mid-morning, mind-numbing announcements. He sounded like all high school principals do—beyond weary—as he spluttered his way first through reminders about the Homecoming game (“Go Silver Warriors!”). He moved dutifully to the next announcement. My dad worked for General Electric, and of course by that time the company had issued a press release. The principal prefaced the big news by saying it was about “the father of one of our students.” My first name was not mentioned. Just like everybody else in the non-Nordic world, he did the usual (“Really? Are you kidding me?”) bad job pronouncing my last name. The way he struggled with the sound of the first four letters “GIAE” brought to mind a feral cat having an epileptic seizure. Being 16, I was now quite thick-skinned about bad variations on how to say my last name. However, this latest version made me wince. Tom GIACHINNI a kid I had been alphabetically glued to since the second grade (back in those days, your homeroom was determined by where your last name came in the alphabet), elbowed me and muttered that he thought his grandfather had won one of those awards too–for fighting in Korea. In the hallway and heading to my next class, I overheard a popular art teacher (yes, he had the requisite ‘70s pony tail) comment how weird it was to think “even smart people like Ivar Giaever had to take shits like everybody else.” The kids around him (including a guy I was sweet on but who didn’t know it yet) roared with laughter. My “best” girlfriend (a passive-aggressive bitch who always competed with me for better grades and whose father was coincidentally also a physicist) smiled more wanly at me than usual and said that speaking of my dad, she had always wondered why his hair always looked so greasy. Did he really still use Brylcreem? And thus it became clear to me that day (of all days) that the world was full of insensitive boors whether they tested well or not. Crushed, disillusioned, and let down by humanity, in an instant I became wildly protective of my father’s dignity. It was a life-changing moment, the kind you only expect to experience watching film noir from the ‘40s and ‘50s. It hit me that the world is a place where no one really understands, much less cares about others’ good fortune. Smart, accomplished people are as vulnerable as the rest of us—maybe even more so. But don’t worry, Dad. More than thirty years later my father is an old man now—more vulnerable than ever, and I am grateful for the proud and protective coat of armor I started to ironically wear on his behalf on October 23, 1973. If only I had had the courage to put this into my college essay. But at least I can finally say to my father on this Father’s Day, “Oh Dad, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.“
—Anne Giaever is a teacher. She graduated from Cornell University and sutdied Russian language and literature at Columbia University. Her father, a native of Bergen, Norway, and a naturalized American, was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1973.