Friday, November 3

The Square Root of Negative One

Today I'd like to tell you about a boy named Nikita.

Nikita was a student in my first AP Spanish class at Elmwood Park Memorial High School, the 2001-2002 school year. He was 16 years old, had been in the U.S. for a year and a half and had taught himself Spanish during that time. He was the top student in the class, so I of course chose him to receive the Spanish Award at the end of the year.

Nikita was so bright. Along with some friends at school he spoke Shilgne, or English spoken backwards - phonetically. One day before a holiday I brought in some algorithm problems from Discover magazine just to challenge the kids. The night before I had spent a couple hours trying it myself, and had almost got it. Nikita burst my bubble by informing me that he and his friends had figured that out back in Russia.

Nikita's family was important to him. He was an only child living with his mother and grandmother. One of the composition assignments during the year was to tell about a special memory. Nikita wrote about walking with his grandmother in the snow in Russia.

Due to his extreme intelligence and awkward physical appearance, Nikita was often seen as nerdy by his peers. During lunch one day, one of the math teachers recounted a story about Nikita and a young man who had bothered him in class. In response to the boy's taunting, Nikita told him "Well, you're the square root of negative one." Of course the kid had no idea what that meant, but actually went and asked the teacher, who told him that, as we all know, the square root of negative one is an imaginary number, it doesn't exist.

After graduation at 16 years old, Nikita went to Cornell University where he double-majored in Computer Science and Math, with a minor in Linguistics. He often came to visit, showing up outside my classroom door and popping in to talk with me. My students were often amazed that this young man with such a boyish face was actually in college, and that he spoke with such eloquence. Although they may have snickered, I think inside they felt a kind of awe.

The last time I saw Nikita was this spring, when he came to visit at EP. When he walked into the classroom, I could see that something was not right. During the course of the conversation I learned that he had taken some time off from studying at Cornell. He was hesitant to say why, but eventually explained that he had been recovering from treatments for a brain tumor. It was my impression that he was on the road to recovery.

This week I received an email from a friend and colleague at EPMHS letting me know that Nikita had passed away sometime towards the end of October. I have been thinking about him ever since. I have to think that there is some other purpose for such gentle, bright, kind, creative human being. It just doesn't seem fair that so many people who contribute negatively to our world get to live long lives, while such special people like Nikita are taken so young. He was 21 years old and he still looked like a boy, yet he was an old soul. Perhaps that was it. Maybe his soul was too old and it was time.

Please think about him, his mother and his grandmother, and do your best to be a light in this world, as Nikita was.


Anonymous Anonymous said...



12:08 AM


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