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My special friend, Johnny
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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But one of the things they did in Louisiana is we had these little double desks. And so they paired people. And since I was only temporary, I got paired with a kid who hadn't been paired, who was a mentally retarded kid named Johnny. And there were probably about 30 kids in our class. And it was actually pretty good because I could do my work and then I could help Johnny do his work. And so I became friends with Johnny because nobody else would be friends with Johnny. And it was actually really sad because, I know this sounds unbelievable, but they passed a rule while I was in this rural school that during the middle of the year, that everybody had to wear shoes to school. It was a new rule. And Johnny would come with his... He only had Sunday shoes which were polished black shoes. And he would carry them with him, he was afraid of getting them scuffed. And the teacher, Mrs Catherine, didn't make him put them on, which at the time I thought missed the point of the rule, but I now understand it much better. So all the other kids had to put on their shoes but Johnny was allowed to carry his shoes which he was very afraid of getting scuffed. But he had to have shoes with him.

And there was... Some of the kids were very poor so there was a federally subsidised lunch, for 25c a week you could get lunch every day. And so we would line up and we would each pay our quarter on Monday morning. And she would check it off and she would always, when Johnny would stand in line, she would always take a quarter out of her pocket and put it in and check it. And I remember noticing that, but she would do it very quietly so... But she'd let him stand in line and do the whole... And then sometimes he would come with like black eyes and things like that. And I now realise he was physically abused by his father. He was very frightened by his father but at the time I didn't understand. So she felt, you know, she knew what was going on, I'm sure.

But Johnny followed me around because I was nice to him and he did everything I did. And I was sort of the new kid so I wasn't particularly friends with the other kids and we'd go out and play in the woods and there were actually woods around the school in those days, in Covington, Louisiana. And so... 'the glen' we called it, a bunch of pine trees. And we'd go out and play and Johnny would always follow me.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: friendship, school life, intellectual disability, shoes

Duration: 2 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017