Tuesday, May 22, 2012


I have spoken and written frequently about my involvement with the Duke University Talent Identification Program. I have written about the impact on my life, some of the instructors, and even a bit about my teaching experiences.

This year, I was presented with the “Distinguished Alumni Award”, one of four honorees for 2012.

One of the other honorees was perhaps my best friend at TIP, Douglas Arner. We've fallen out of touch over the last few decades, though last I checked he was happily married to a wonderful woman, and splitting his time between Hong Kong and London. Apparently he just had a child, and has written something like 11 books. (Doug, I really wish you had made it over!)

The other two were strangers, but their accomplishments were impressive enough to impart a healthy dose of Post-cocious syndrome: One is literally working on a cure for cancer (and received news of achieving an important milestone the day of our ceremony). 

The other works with notable inventor Dean Kamen helping create next-generation prosthetics and wheelchairs to help the disabled and combat veterans. And by “works with”, I mean he is apparently the #2 guy at the company.

Though I arrived very late on Saturday, May 20th, I was still excited to be there. Waiting at the deserted airport for the rental car shuttle, I breathed in the cooling evening air. Here I was again. Despite the long, delay-filled day of travel and no dinner, I found myself cheerful and calm waiting for my rental car.

My eyes blurry from travel, I managed to find my way from RDU to the Millennium Hotel, the same place I’d stayed almost exactly a year ago for the reunion. I parked and slowly carried my bags to the lobby, savoring the peaceful Spring night. 

I caught the end of Saturday Night Live, marveling at Mick Jagger’s youthful energy while simultaneously thinking perhaps it was time for him to move on.

At 10:30 am, I blinked awake to my phone ringing. Fumbling with it, I made plans to meet an old friend and fellow TIP participant for brunch. 

Afterwards, we walked around East campus and caught up, talking about the past, and where our lives had gotten to in the present, and how we felt about all that. Throughout, I note how little East campus has changed in the nearly 30 years I’ve been going there. It’s a long enough cycle of time that some big old trees have died and been removed, and their young replacements have grown to similar or greater heights.

That night, I have dinner with some of the TIP staff, including one wonderful woman who has now retired from the program. Dinner is outside, viewing the beautiful landscape. The food is tasty and the conversation lively, but I’m distracted by the birds flying by and the spectacular, luminous pink sunset.

The day of the ceremony, I put on a suit and tie and try to look my best. I have a brief lunch with some of the program’s benefactors, staff, and parents of one of the honorees. Then it’s off to Duke’s basketball arena.

The ceremony itself seems to fly by. There’s an introductory speech by TIP’s director, and then a longer keynote by an environmental scientist. They read Doug’s biography. He couldn’t be here today, between his teaching commitments and newborn child. 

Then the next honoree. He stands and smiles politely as his biography is read. It sounds pretty impressive. He receives his award and sits back down.

Then it is my turn. I stand up and smile, trying not to look too ridiculous. They read my bio. I have no idea if people even know what any of this stuff I do is.

The next part is a really neat experience. TIP is more than just a residential summer program. It has a major “recognition” component.  7th grade students who score higher than 90% of high school juniors on the SAT and ACT can take part in local events to recognize their achievements and talent.

The top 3% of those students are invited to Duke for the “Grand Recognition Ceremony”. Me? I’m sitting on stage looking out at them. The smartest, brightest, most gifted 480 7th graders in the USA.

And then I get to put medals around each of their necks.

One by one, their names are called. They come up on stage and walk across, and I and the other 2 present honorees take turns draping a medal on them.

The variety is incredible. There are kids who look like they are already well into their teens, and some who look much younger. Some are tall. Some are short. I see boys and girls of every race, color, and creed. One young woman in full hijab. Some are dressed up perfectly. Some are in t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops.

I look every single one in the eye as they approach. I say “Congratulations”, and sometimes, if inspired, some other bit of wisdom or humor just for them. If I caught their name, I use it. I shake their hand.

I try as hard as I can to convey how much I mean it. This is perhaps the first and last time anyone will ever celebrate them like this. To acknowledge they are different, and special, and that this is in fact, awesome.

Most are awkward and shy. A few have the kind of self-confidence I still work to cultivate. A few are definitely…different. Most can’t help but smile a bit, which makes me very happy. One young man tells me “I’m a big fan of your work.”

Meeting and honoring all these kids takes a while. It’s tiring, but it’s also fascinating. I feel lucky to have this experience. We finish the names, and the families begin heading back to their cars or airports.

A few kids want their picture taken with me. “Did you really invent Rhapsody?” they ask. I explain that I was just one part of a great team, but that I did play an important role. They still think it’s cool. A bunch of families want photos with “the robotics guy”.

They hustle me and the other honorees outside for a few more photos and an interview. I go last, and try to find a shaded bench in the sudden 84-degree heat.

I catch a ride back to TIP HQ to collect my rental car. I say my goodbyes, remove my jacket, and climb into my giant Korean SUV. 

I drive over to East campus. I’m too tired and hot to walk very far, but I do check it out again and think about how much I’ve learned on this small stretch of ground.

These days, it’s hard for me to decide what had a greater impact – being a student or being a teacher. After all this time, I find I am still in both roles.

Back at the hotel, I change out of my suit into jeans and a t-shirt. I clear my email and work for several hours, until room service comes.

I put some music on. I look out the window and watch the trees ripple in the breeze until the night creeps in and erases them from view.