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Humor A Role Model’s Role Model

By Wayne Chan

As a child, I was an introvert, but I loved playing dodge ball on the blacktop at school. I was a good student, and like many Asian Americans, my parents always extolled the value of studying hard, and being a well-behaved student during and after class.

Every day, after coming home and finishing my homework, I practiced piano, another rite of passage for many Asian Americans growing up in the 70’s. While I didn’t have that much interest in the piano, I kept getting better and better, until I started competing in some local piano competitions and fared rather well.

Yet the one thing I always loved to do was to write. I constantly wrote poems or short stories, and I discovered with just the turn of a phrase I was able to express feelings in ways I could never do out loud, particularly in front of a crowd.

For all intents and purposes, I had a happy and well-adjusted childhood…except for one thing.

That one thing was named Derrick Ho, or at least that’s what I am calling him.

Derrick was a year older than I, one of only two or three other Asians attending Patrick Henry High School. Derrick was slim, wore wire-rimmed glasses, was soft spoken, and was a bonafide genius. Derrick was the best in everything he ever wanted to do. It didn’t matter what the activity or class was – if Derrick participated, he would be the best.

Derrick had a genuinely humble manner about him, but his humbleness seemed to emanate from a place deep inside him where along with his genius, he figured he might as well reinforce his perfectness with an irritating dash of humility.

Of course, his accomplishments were truly daunting. Derrick played the piano as well, and he was known as one of the country’s most exciting prodigies. He won competition after competition, both nationally and around the world.

In school, he won the California State Science project competition two years in a row. He was a straight “A” student, and graduated at the top of his class.

Upon graduating high school, he received a full scholarship to Harvard, where he earned double majors and also joined the Harvard symphony, where he ended up playing the violin, and played so well he became the first chair violinist of the symphony.

I hated Derrick. But not for the reasons you might think.

While Derrick’s accomplishments were surely daunting, I wasn’t particularly jealous of him. The natural impulse for most people when confronting someone with singular talent is not necessarily to be envious.

When standing in front of a Van Gogh painting or listening to a Beethoven concerto, your first reaction wouldn’t usually be “I feel like an idiot because I can’t do that.” One can appreciate a work of art or genius simply for what it is - genius.

Except, in this case.

As many Asian Americans can probably attest, a common practice for parents to prod their kids to success was to compare their accomplishments to those of others who were excelling. Since my parents were friends of Derrick’s parents, Derrick became my “Role Model”.

Inevitably, almost on a weekly basis, one or both of my parents would say something like:

“Derrick just won the grand prize at the so and so festival in New York!”

Or, “Derrick entered the state science fair and was just written up in the newspaper!”

Or, Derrick is taking three AP classes for college and got all ‘A’s!

At the end of each exclamation, my mom or dad would inevitably follow up the statement with, “Wayne, if you’d just study a little harder you could be like Derrick”, as if true genius can be attained simply by putting down a comic book and staying up to study a half hour more.

But with the passage of time, it’s hard to recall every one of Derrick’s achievements, but for those I still remember, the sheer brilliance of each event seems to increase in magnitude with each passing year, as if each accomplishment continued to become that much more unattainable to us mortals as the years rolled by. Even Derrick’s real achievements could never compare to my exaggerated recollections of what he’d done.

Here are some of my recollections. You tell me if my mind is playing tricks on me.

Derrick wins the Young Pianists competition, by rewriting and playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5. I believe he called it, Beethoven’s Fifth, The Improved Version.

Derrick wins the 1976 California State Science Project competition with his project, “Global Warming – It hasn’t started yet but it’s coming!”

Derrick wins the 1977 California State Science Project competition with his project, “Global Warming – How I stopped it with leftover parts in my backyard.”

OK, maybe I’m embellishing…a little.

I haven’t seen Derrick in over 20 years now. I hear he’s living a quiet, simple life, keeping mostly to himself and surprisingly, not taking the world by storm. I heard that he had some difficulties living up to the expectations that he and others had set for him.

My guess is that if he had to do it over again, he’d like to take some time off and just read a comic book.

One of these days, I’d like to catch up with him. I’d hope that despite us taking different life paths, we’d find that we both turned out OK. I’d like to shake his hand.

Maybe he’d be up for a game of dodge ball.

Reproduced with permission of the author.