1st April 1968
The boy sat at his desk trying desperately to complete the project in time. Everything else had been forgotten - half finished designs sat on his bed, along with neat piles of notebooks outlining his important work. Now other work had to take priority for once - he didn't have his usual option of just letting it flow from his mind through his fingers to the paper, just letting the information that he absorbed so readily, the methodologies that came so naturally, do the work for him.
For the first time in his life, John was facing a mental challenge that might actually have been beyond him. He was having to work hard through necessity, rather than just through choice and he didn't like it at all. Rarely, but still often enough to concern him, he found himself wishing that he could be normal - that he didn't have the type of mind he did that found intellectual activities so simple. Certainly it had its advantages - it was a rare twelve year old who could do Differential Calculus in his head, but it also had profound disadvantages.
One of those disadvantages was at the forefront of his mind at this very moment. If you were a brilliant student, people expected you to be brilliant one hundred percent of the time. Errors that would be accepted as normal in the bulk of the population were regarded as profound failures by other people when you made them. Eventually you got to the stage where you wouldn't tolerate anything less than perfection from yourself - anything less than a perfect result was by definition a failure. And John did not like to fail.
So he always strove for perfection and he nearly always achieved that perfection. But what did you do when you encountered something where no matter what you did, you couldn't do it perfectly because it was beyond your skills? Or when for the first time you were put into a situation where you might actually be competing against those with the same abilities.
John had never fit in - never in his life had he felt that he belonged. He doubted he would ever find a place that he belonged, a group of people who he could identify as being the same as him. Friendship was not something that came easily - not that he allowed that fact to worry him or at least he tried not to, and he tried not to let his father know how much it hurt.
His father - a war veteran, a man who had given up his chance to go to be the first person in his family to go to University in order to serve his King and Country during the Second World War. When he returned, there wasn't time to worry about his interrupted education - he was no longer a boy, but a man with the responsibility to look after his mother and brothers after his own father had been killed in the same war. So he joined the Police Force and continued to serve his country. And never once complained about his lot. John knew only because he could somehow sense it within his father, he didn't know how. But he sensed how much his father regretted the lost chances. And how much his father's hopes rested upon his shoulders. Not that his father would ever have actually told John of this - he did not want to put that type of pressure on his son, and he constantly assured him that his only desire was to see John happy. But John knew that his father wanted him to achieve the greatest possible results, always. His father wanted him to get the best education possible and that just wasn't possible on a Policeman's wage. So John had to get this scholarship.
He had done the exam part of it already, and he was convinced he had done as well as possible. But he wasn't sure that it was good enough. He had to get the scholarship, not just for his father's sake, although that desire was there, but also because he hoped against all hope that the school he had glimpsed as he waited to go into the exam might be a place that he could belong - that he would fit in and find like minds. Not that that was important of course - he didn't really need other people after all. But it might be nice.
His father had told him just before he went into the exam that it didn't matter how well he did, as long as he did his best. But John knew that that wasn't really true - it was just his father trying to ease the stress, and to ease the pain that John might end up feeling if he failed to do well, if he failed to win a scholarship. It did matter. He needed to win that scholarship. He needed to beat all the other boys who were sitting for it. He needed a perfect mark. Only if he achieved all three things would he be satisfied. And he knew that despite the man's assertions otherwise that was what his father wanted and needed his son to do as well.
So he had gone into the exam and he had done well - he had to keep telling himself that. Looking back he could see that there were questions that he could have answered better - questions which he knew he could have answered more fully, or used another more lucid turn of phrase. He also knew, intellectually speaking, that he had done far better than could ever be expected of any normal child his age. He knew that he had answered questions that no one else in his class at school could have answered at all - and that included the teacher. He knew that they didn't expect perfect answers, that they would take into account the age of the boys concerned. He knew all those things. It didn't matter though, he should have done better. This was a scholarship examination - surely there were other boys sitting it who might have done as well, who might have been as intelligent as he was, or who had received better coaching - his father couldn't afford as much as some people. It was perfectly possible that some other boy might beat him.
He sat back in astonishment. It was finished - he wasn't quite sure how, as was quite common, but he had successfully completed the entire mathematics project that had been set as part of the external section of the Scholarship. The school felt that formal examinations only measured part of a person's academic ability and so they had given each boy a separate project to work on at home and which had to be handed back to the school. It was fiendishly difficult work even for someone who found mathematics as easy as John. But it was completed now, and he knew that the answer was correct. Some of the working was less elegant than he would have liked but he could fix that.
Then he realised that the sun was peeking in through his window. He must have worked all night. He glanced at his clock and realised that it was after eight o'clock - he had worked for more than twelve hours covering sheet after sheet after sheet of foolscap with his work. There wasn't time to redo it. His father would want to leave soon so that they could hand in the work before the 10.30 deadline.
He piled up the work and neatly stapled it into a folder. He printed his name on it in neat block capitals that almost looked like typeface. Then he went to breakfast.
His father looked up from where he was cooking bacon and eggs over the gas ring.
"You're dressed then, John. Good lad. We'll have to leave in about twenty minutes."
"Is that your work?"
"Let me see." His father picked up the folder and glanced inside at column after column of neat numbers. His lips moved as he tried to follow his sons work, but after a while he shrugged and put it down.
"It's all Greek to me, I'm afraid. Still, it's a lot of work - you didn't get to sleep too late doing it, I hope."
"No, Dad." It was true, he hadn't got to sleep late.
"Well eat up and then we'll go. I'll just go get the car out." His father walked, almost marched to the door, such was the neat precision of his movement. He paused.
"Whatever happens with this scholarship I'm proud of you. Your mother would have been too. And I've been working it out. Even if you don't get it, I should still be able to manage the fees - it won't be easy, but it can be done. It will be done. So don't worry too much." He passed through the door.
John looked down at his bacon and eggs. How could his father not expect him to worry? Did he think he was that worried about the school? It wasn't the school, it was the symbol. John couldn't accept failure - he never had been able to. It simply wasn't an option he could accept. And not worrying wouldn't just be accepting the possibility of failure - it would be embracing it. I don't need to succeed because my father will get me to that school anyway. No. You couldn't think like that - that was accepting failure from the start. It had to be all or nothing - pass or fail, become great or become mediocre. There was no middle ground that he could accept.
His father came into the room.
"The car's ready."
John stood up, picked up his papers and stepped outside.
15th April 1968
John sat there waiting - waiting for the post to arrive, waiting for the letter that would tell him whether or not he had won the scholarship. There was a slight creak as the letters fell through the slot on the door, and the flap fell back into place.
He stood, walked over to the mat, and extracted the envelope bearing the school crest and the neatly typed mailing label. He could hear his father step out of the small kitchen and stand there waiting. He picked up the letter opener from where it sat on a small table and slit open the envelope extracting the fine quality paper from inside. He opened it.
Again the crest but he looked past that to the text of the letter.
"We are happy to inform you that your son, John, has been successful in his attempt to gain a scholarship to our school. He achieved a mark of 100% in the Examination component, and a mark of 97% percent in the External component of the Scholarship, making him the highest scoring applicant. We therefore wish to offer him a full scholarship..."
His father put his hand on his shoulder. "Well done, John. I'm so proud of you."
John closed his eyes - 97%. A good mark, certainly, and one that had been good enough. Good enough to win the scholarship at any rate. But those last three points tore at his mind and at his sense of pride. Perfection was an absolute. Three percent off perfect was still not perfect. And he could have got that three percent if he had been more careful.
Next time, it would be perfect. He could accept no less than perfection. He would accept no less from himself. Ever.