First Love

Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks; drawing by David Levine

In January 1946, when I was twelve and a half, I moved from my prep school in Hampstead, The Hall, to a much larger school, St. Paul’s, in Hammersmith. It was here, in the Walker Library, that I met Jonathan Miller for the first time. I was hidden in a corner, reading a nineteenth-century book on electrostatics—reading, for some reason, about “electric eggs”—when a shadow fell across the page. I looked up and saw an astonishingly tall, gangling boy with a very mobile face, brilliant, impish eyes, and an exuberant mop of reddish hair. We got talking together, and have been close friends ever since.

Prior to this time, I had had only one real friend, Eric Korn, whom I had known almost from birth. Eric followed me from The Hall to St. Paul’s a year later, and now he and Jonathan and I formed an inseparable trio, bound not only by personal but by family bonds too (our fathers, thirty years earlier, had all been medical students together, and our families had remained close). Jonathan and Eric did not really share my love of chemistry—though a year or two earlier they had joined me in a flamboyant chemical experiment: throwing a large lump of metallic sodium into the Highgate Ponds on Hampstead Heath, and watching excitedly as it took fire and sped round and round on the surface like a demented meteor, with a huge sheet of yellow flame beneath it—but they were intensely interested in biology, and it was inevitable, when the time came, that we would find ourselves together in the same biology class, and that all of us would fall in love with our biology teacher, Sid Pask.

Pask was a splendid teacher. He was also narrow-minded, bigoted, cursed with a hideous stutter (which we would imitate endlessly), and by no means exceptionally intelligent. By dissuasion, irony, ridicule, or force, he would turn us away from all other activities—from sport and sex, from religion and families, and from all our other subjects at school. He demanded that we be as single-minded as himself.

The majority of his pupils found him an impossibly demanding and exacting taskmaster. They would do all they could to escape from this pedant’s petty tyranny, as they regarded it. The struggle would go on for a while, and then suddenly there was no longer any resistance—they were free. Pask no longer carped at them, no longer made ridiculous demands upon their time and energy.

Yet some of us, each year, responded to Pask’s challenge. In return he gave us all of himself—all his time, all his dedication, for biology. We would stay late in the evening with him in the Natural History Museum (I once hid myself in a gallery and managed to spend the night there). We would sacrifice every weekend to plant-collecting expeditions. We would get up at dawn on freezing winter…

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