Recalling Brian McGeever and the A-to-Z Mathematics Award.
I attended a Lakeland Community College in Kirtland Ohio from Anno Domini 1998–2000. While there I fell in with the more-advanced mathematics people, a variety of marvelous souls I remember fondly to this day. I found myself developing a friendship with two of them in particular: Brian McGeever and Michael Smolinski. Both Brian and Mike were well over twice my age and, as a naive teenager, I didn’t really develop a mature mental model of them so as to be able to describe them with confidence today.
Each March Lakeland would have a Mathematics Awareness Week. This was a pure delight, with showings of Donald Duck in Mathematica Land, π and e recitation contests, humorous awards ceremonies, etc. At the awards ceremony in 2000 Brian McGeever received an award that even then seemed to me at least as impressive as it was intended to be humorous.
Brian was given the A-to-Z award for taking all but (I think) three The courses offered number has grown a lot since then, and I don’t still have my old catalogs, so this is all guesswork from old memories. of the mathematics courses Lakeland then offered. If I recall correctly that was twelve courses in total, going from basic algebra right on through multivariate calculus.
Brian was not a natural mathematician. I had three calculus courses with him and, since I worked in the mathematics resource center as a tutor, I saw him working his homework. He was almost always there before I arrived, working away, and would push his way through one problem after another for hours, frequently staying after I left. Each problem took him what to my hyperactive teen mind seemed forever. He’d get them right; he was very good at getting them right. But he’d work through every single step on every problem. It never seemed to come naturally.
I can still picture Brian standing on that stage getting the award. Mr Bill, our calculus teacher, was counting off the courses he’d taken, a stunt involving all of his fingers and both legs. And I realized, this man, this giant of a man, had not only out-worked me by at least a five-fold effort but had been putting in this same determined effort for three years before I ever met him. I was a much better mathematician, but I then realized that I wasn’t half the man he was. I couldn’t imagine ever putting that kind of effort into anything.
That might have been the first time I felt truly humble. It was real, sincere. There was no outside influence; I don’t think anyone else ever found out. It was outward: I was overjoyed for him, and also pained to realize his effort was unlikely to earn him much reward. I knew he was a better man than I, and was proud of him for it.
I’ve often thought back on that moment. How many Brian McGeevers are there in this world? Do any of them realize how much more amazing they are than are people like me, who has excelled and been lauded in areas where I gave only a casual effort? How can I develop his level of determination?
Brian had his flaws and I have no idea how the last decade has treated him; but I won’t be surprised if, when all is said and done and we are judge based on how well we used the talents we’ve been given, Brian McGeever comes in far ahead of me.