Nicolas Meringolo


 One Pencil Per Child


I first met Mr. Ajania at one of the weekly club meetings of Pencils for Africa at St. Hilary school just a few years ago. Over the years, he has become an important mentor in my life and helps me to use my passions to make a difference in the world.

The opportunities that he creates for me and the other members of Pencils for Africa are amazing and allows us to grow as both students and people.

I really like the idea of human mentoring and human connection.

In his essay, ‘The Smart Attitude,’ Mr. Ajania writes about his relationship with his thesis supervising professor during his time at MIT graduate school.

From his mentorship with this particular professor, Mr. Ajania learned that “you can do what you want to,” which is the smart attitude. He learned this lesson just a few months before he was to graduate during a walk through campus with the professor.

This special human connection allowed him to figure out the smart attitude for himself. I believe that this form of human mentoring allows us to learn and connect in unique and special ways.

Human connection immerses us into a deeper level of humanity than could be achieved by reading a book or watching a movie.

When we are introduced to and connect with people on a personal and human level, we discover different types of smart. When we interact on this personal level, knowledge is passed down from one person to the next and we come up with new and interesting ideas. I have discovered this from Mr. Ajania through our human mentorship.

I recently have had an increased interest in studying history brought about by my Western Civilization class in high school.

Two examples of the passing down of knowledge are present in my interest.

Mr. Thompson, our sixty seven year old teacher for Western Civilization passes down his life knowledge and stories to us each class. Also, by learning about the world’s history, we can better analyze present day situations to make better decisions. We are essentially learning from the past.

This example is shown in Mr. Ajania’s essay when the professor talked to Mr. Ajania about how some of the greatest thinkers that ever lived were successful because of the smart attitude of:

“You can do what you want to.”

This theme of the passing down of knowledge is not only present in history class and in Mr. Ajania’s essay, but it is also present right within our global community at Pencils for Africa (PFA).

At the weekly PFA meetings, the students are given knowledge, ideas, and life lessons from the moderators, Ms. Weitzman and Mr. Ajania.

This concept is also applied to an allied organization called Nyaka.

At Nyaka, a community of 7,000 grandmothers take care of orphaned children whose entire parent generation has been killed by HIV/AIDS. This ‘army of grandmothers’ passes down their traditions, knowledge, and life skills down to these orphans.

No matter the location, age difference, or time period, we can always learn what smart is by looking to the older generations and the past. Through human connection we can interact and learn in personal and unique ways.

By finding our inner light, we can accomplish anything and truly do what we want to.

The Smart Attitude


Karim Ajania


Leonardo da Vinci and Faraday at MIT Attics of Pavilion

“You can do what you want to.”

Those were the 7 words that were recited most frequently by my thesis supervising professor when I was a graduate student at MIT. It was not just these 7 words, but the manner in which he said these 7 words. He said them with such a sense of freedom, so I could imagine any possibility.

He refused to babysit me or mollycoddle me.

He showed a complete disinterest in what classes I decided to take, and encouraged me to design and structure my own program so that he would not have to bother with assisting me on it. In the first few months of getting to know him, I tested him, to see if he actually meant what he said:

“So, what you are saying,” I said, challenging him, “Is that I can ‘do what I want to’. So, that means I can go over and take Professor Minsky’s class in Artificial Intelligence, and Professor Chomsky’s class in Linguistics, and then maybe take Professor Townes class in Quantum Physics and then pop over to the Sloan School and take a class from Professor Thurow in Political Economy?”

He peered at me thoughtfully from above his bifocal eye glasses and then said, approvingly:

“You can do what you want to.”

And so, I did what I wanted to.


Autumn walk toward the MIT Attics of the Pavilion

You don’t think of Shakespeare being a child, do you? Shakespeare being seven? He was seven at some point.

He was in someone’s English class. How annoying is that?

— Sir Ken Robinson

I took all those classes and whatever other classes I became whimsically interested in, without any rhythm or reason, without any structure or strategy, and spent my entire first year of my two year master of science degree indulging myself as a giddy and aimless dilettante. At the beginning of my second year, I started to panic, and so I met with my professor and asked him this question:

“Do you not think, professor, that in this, my final year, I should have a more serious focus and establish some tangible goals and objectives for my coursework? Don’t I need to buckle down?”

He thought about my question for a moment and then responded:

“You can do what you want to.”

I was craving guidance and direction from him. I tried to get him to see why this was necessary:

“Professor, what am I going to do when I get out there in the real world? If I just indulge myself signing up for whatever classes take my fancy, and have no game plan, no specific strategy, then what kind of mindset am I going to bring out there into the real world once I graduate from MIT?”

He thought about this somewhat longer, and then he quietly mumbled:

“Hmm, ‘what kind of mindset’ will you bring into the real world, you say?”

“Yes,” I responded, delighted that he was finally understanding my concerns.

“Well,” he pondered, “The mindset you will bring to the world is… You can do what you want to.”


Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Flying Helicopter Drawing’

You cannot teach a person anything.

You can only encourage them to find it within themselves.

— Galileo Galilei

A few months before I graduated from MIT, this same professor recommended we take a leisurely stroll around the MIT campus. It was a beautiful sunny and crisp autumn day, and the colorful New England tree blossoms were in their full resplendency. We walked along the Attics of Pavilion where, emblazoned in stone carved lettering above towering Greek and Roman architecture, were the names of great thinkers, inventors and scientists throughout the ages, including:

Archimedes, Aristotle, Pythagorus, Plato, Ptolemy, Euclid, Democratis, Galileo, Copernicus, Lavoisier, Pasteur, Newton, Thomas Alva Edison, Michael Faraday and Leonardo da Vinci.

He asked me to not be in awe of all these great thinkers, but instead, to think about how they must have been as daydreaming children. How, in their imaginations, they must have incubated a sense of wonderment that blossomed into innovations that defined their work and their lives.

About 500 years ago, my professor enthusiastically explained on our walk through the MIT Attics of Pavilion, Leonardo da Vinci sketched a concept similar to the idea of the modern helicopter.

To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.

— Nicolaus Copernicus


I only saw further by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

— Sir Isaac Newton

“If we look at Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘helicopter drawings’, it is neither technical proficiency nor artistic talent that moves us and fills us with wonder,” explained my professor, “What truly inspires us about these drawings is the fact that da Vinci was thinking… ‘I can do what I want to’.”

The fact that Leonardo da Vinci even dared to imagine that man could fly, some five hundred years ago, is what remains the most compelling lesson to this day, explained my professor.

Leonardo da Vinci was essentially saying to all mankind, as were all these great thinkers emblazoned into immortality on the MIT Attics of Pavilion: “You can do what you want to.”

Two people that loved the message in those helicopter drawings by Leonardo da Vinci centuries later, were the Wright Brothers. The Wright Brothers got the message. It was not about da Vinci’s technical skill or even his vision, it was his audacious ‘attitude’. The ‘smart’ attitude that says:

“You can do what you want to.”


The Wright Brothers did just that. They did what they wanted to, and showed us that we can fly.

As I wrote in Smart is a Precious Resource, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he brought along to the moon, as a tribute, a piece of fabric from the wing of the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flyer.

It was not the piece of wing fabric that mattered. It was the wise attitude behind the wing fabric.

It was that wise and ‘Smart Attitude’ of the Wright Brothers that said, without a hint of hesitation:

“You can do what you want to.”

When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned happily skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return again.

— Leonardo da Vinci


Imagine, if the naysayers who had mocked Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago for conceiving a flying machine, could have witnessed Neil Armstrong’s moon landing on the Apollo 11?

Imagine, if Neil Armstrong had not daydreamed of flying as a boy in Wapakoneta, Ohio?

Imagine, if children every day, did not daydream and imagine? Imagine no imagination.

Sir Ken Robinson muses that Shakespeare was at one time 7 years old in someone’s English class. It is likely that Shakespeare was daydreaming and composing his first sonnets, or that Galileo and Copernicus found their minds wandering upward as they traversed the heavens..

The majority of children’s daydreams may not be productive but, without the basic capacity to dream, and to wonder, and to imagine freely as you want to, it would have been impossible to have become any of the towering thinkers that gazed down at my professor and me, on this glorious autumn day, their names above the stone structures at the Attics of Pavilion at MIT.

It was as if they were silently singing to us, in a communion of choral harmony, these 7 words:

“You can do what you want to.”

If we all actually did the things that we are really and truly capable of doing, then we would literally astound ourselves.

— Thomas Alva Edison