I had the chance of a lifetime during my years in elementary school. When people hear that I lived across the street from Albert Einstein and passed him daily as I walked to school, their eyes go wide and their breath comes in sharp little pants. They ask what he said to me and what I said to him. Here’s the answer. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
You don’t believe me? Think about it. Close your eyes and picture him walking down the steps of his modest wooden house. An old man with hooded eyes and a wild mop of white hair. Often he’d be wearing a big baggy sweater. And no socks, because he believed mending socks was a waste of time.. He’d stride along the sidewalk, hands behind his back, looking upward as if searching for stars in the sunlit sky.
Now on the other side of the street, picture a pudgy little girl with sagging knee socks and thick braids. Even back then, long before Einstein was named Man of the Century, we all knew he was a physicist and math genius. Math was my worst subject in school. If the guy had been a writer, maybe I’d have managed to mutter something complimentary about his books. But a physicist? I didn’t even know what the word meant. A glance at the old man’s lined face and abstracted air convinced me that nothing I had to say would be of possible interest to him.
Besides I had worries of my own. Like if there was enough time to hotfoot it to my friends house before school, take off my detested Girl Scout oxfords and slip on the penny loafers she was willing to lend, If I had an extra minute, I’d pull out my braids and comb my fingers through my wiry curls under the mistaken impression that this made me look more glamorous. Actually it made me look like an out of control version of the burning bush, much talked about in Sunday school.
Aside from obsessing over my appearance, I had other things to brood on. Like the boy who sat behind me in class.. Donald had been kept back for three years and now had grown so tall, he could barely fit his knees under his desk. He used to dip the top of my braid into his inkwell and laugh like a demented donkey when I screeched. Alas, the teacher had just assigned me to go the library during reading period and try to get Donald to master a simple story. In later life I came to love tutoring children who’d fallen behind , but in fourth and fifth grades, I was too worried about myself to be kind to others.
The above is a lengthy explanation as to why my famous neighbor got a small speaking part in my middle grades book, The Einstein Solution. Even if I never talked to The Man of the Century, through the magic of fiction, I could have a conversation with him. You probably know that in books the protagonist always has to solve his or her own problem. Therefore, Einstein, no matter how brilliant, could never swoop down to save my main character, Rosemary Hoyt. Rosemary has to be brave enough to join her unpopular Jewish friend in a school skit. By playing Kat’s relative, tortured by Nazis, Rosemary defies the “in crowd” and even the principal of her school Once she showed herself to be courageous, I could put a few lines in Einstein’s mouth.
In the process of researching this book, I learned a lot about Albert Einstein. Like everyone, he had his flaws, but he was indeed a great humanitarian. Shocked by by Hitler’s actions in World War II Einstein abandoned his pacifism. Then panicked by Hitler’s advance through Europe, Einstein wrote to Roosevelt urging the development of an atom bomb, an action he later regretted.
He was kind to all young people, but totally uninterested in Princeton society, referring to the latter as “puny demigods on stilts.” He ignored the unwritten racial segregation of the town and became one of the few white people to wander through the black section where he often handed out nickels to the children.
Like my protagonist in The Einstein Solution, Einstein was the only Jewish person I knew when I was in grade school. And you couldn’t really call it knowing, since I never exchanged a word with him. If only I’d been as brave as Rosemary, by now I’d have published a best seller titled, My Daily Chats with Albert Einstein. Even better, I could have gotten to know an amazing man.