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Posted on 2005.11.10 at 20:32
Current Mood: creative
Current Music: Sloop John B - The Beach Boys
I want to talk today about being smart, and hoo-boy, is this a tangled topic. In my life, I have been a genius, I have been a village idiot, I have been both at once, and I have slipped and slid upon the muddy road that connects the two. Let’s start with childhood, when things were far less ambiguous.

The obvious conclusion back then was that I was smarter than my peers. Whether this was due to any inherent superiority on my part, earlier mental development, an illusion of perception, a trick of the light, or anything else, well, such things were not debated at the time. There was simply a largely unspoken evolution in the social structure between myself and my peer group in which I was one of the main people looked to as a problem solver, particularly if the problem required creative thought. Let it be noted that this perception was helped along by my parents, who were quick to remind me that I was smarter than the other children. They would typically remind of this in a simple matter-of-fact manner, as if they were reminding me of what time dinner would be.

My grade school years offered frequent reinforcement of this image. Readers and English textbooks, especially, would typically be read through before the weather turned cold. Studying, aside from specific homework assignments, was largely a matter of simply paying attention during class. And so an odd by-product of this educational environment began to take hold – because I had exceptional capabilities in certain areas, other potential growth areas became invisible and could lie fallow, quite undeveloped. The handy term in this context would be “study habits.” I essentially had none. And when I entered high school, the piper came to be paid, and he was not amused.

I attended an old ivy-covered all-boys Catholic school that prided itself on its college-prep status, and the tricks that enabled me to skip carelessly through grade school became stumbling blocks that sent me sprawling in high school. Basically, if an assignment lent itself to improvisation, or if it was a task that I considered to be fun, I could ace it, but if it required real work to grind it out, it would not be done well or it would not be done at all. Another way in which my lack of discipline was expressed was that I would tend to do better if I felt the teacher was genuinely interested in what he was teaching; otherwise, I lacked the discipline to push through that barrier. High school quickly became an acutely depressing experience for me. No, scratch that; it was life that was depressing. I didn’t blame high school for my unhappiness. In hindsight, I might have benefited from some timely counseling but well, it didn’t happen.

There was an odd dichotomy to that time and place. The teachers of the classes in which I did well tended to assume that I did that well in all of my classes, so I actually garnered some votes for the National Honor Society (though not enough votes to gain admittance), even though my cumulative GPA for my four years was a tepid 2.7.

I emerged from high school with my self-esteem a little battered, still not quite comprehending what went wrong, but with enough awareness of what a lousy student I was to turn down various scholarship offers that came my way due to my National Merit Finalist status (which was solely based on my PSAT score, which I was told was the highest ever recorded at my school).

I’m going to resist the temptation to recount those ensuing years after graduation in detail, because I want to stay somewhere near my topic. There were a few good lessons that came my way, quite unlooked-for. Here’s one: I made a very good friend when I was in my early 20s; we’re still good friends today. As we got to know each other better, it became clear that she had been a rather marginal student. There were fields of what I considered to be general knowledge in which she was utterly ignorant, or in which she claimed no ability to discuss or problem-solve, and she would quickly defer to me. I was briefly staggered to realize that I would never have considered a friendship with such a person when I was in school. What a little snob I was! But that was only half of my lesson. The other half was the knowledge that here was a person, my friend, who often understood things that I did not, who I learned from all the time. This thing called intelligence became an elusive little bug that would squirm away whenever I tried to catch it. I came to wonder whether that bug was worth chasing at all.

So at this point, my thoughts about intelligence tend to wander on two separate paths: it is either completely undefinable, some sort of sociological illusion, or it is like what a judge once said about pornography: “I can’t say what it is, but I know it when I see it.”

You’d think a smart guy like me could do better than that!

There’s a lot more I could say on this topic, so I may revisit it down the road. In the meantime, I earnestly solicit your comments, because there is one general truth about intelligence that I have come to believe more and more: WE are smarter than any one of us.

Postscript: After cluttering up the theater departments at several different colleges without ever formally being a student, I finally enrolled at Lansing Community College ten years after my high school graduation. I was pleased to find that could carry a 4.0 GPA without breaking a sweat. I see two primary factors being responsible for this change in my ability to be a student: 1) For reasons I may go into another time, I needed to carry at least a B average or the tuition money would be coming out of my own pocket – golly, that threat has a way of focusing one’s mind! And 2) It turned out that I had grown and learned a hell of a lot in those ten years. Just one more item in the long list of ways in which I’ve been a late bloomer. My wish for myself: Keep on blooming!


(Anonymous) at 2005-11-12 16:35 (UTC) (Link)

The Coin

Just a quick hit for now. I'm reminded of the phrase, "The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know," or something similar. The vastness of existence makes cooperation imperative - solid relationships with people, the universe, etc.

Synergy. TEAM - Together Each Achieves More. It's a matter of finding the right team to join for you.

Learning, blooming. Sometimes you have to travel a long way to go a short distance. What others are born knowing takes enormous effort for some of us to "get".

Brother Dan
(Anonymous) at 2005-11-18 15:02 (UTC) (Link)


How many times I think of how life would be different if our parents had been more involved in our school life when we were young...as you said, they pretty much left it up to us to achieve because we were all "so smart," yet I had to WORK for the good grades I achieved, fueled by some determined work ethic, or fueled by the fact I didn't want to embarrass myself by getting a poor grade, or a little of both! Being a parent, I can now see how difficult it is to nose your way into your kids school life and try to motivate them to learn those important skills they'll need to succeed later on. It would be so much easier to tell them to "do their homework" and leave it at that and let the grades fall where they may. Their grades have consequences attached...good grade, rewards - bad grade, privileges revoked (something that NEVER happened when we were young!) I owe this to my strict and loving husband, and the fact I always feel I can improve on how I was raised. It's funny/strange to hear you had a 2.7 in high school when I thought you breezed through with awesome grades...what an actor! - well, you had so much fun acting, that was all I really remember about your high school years (popular in acting, must be popular/smart the rest of the time!). I had a revelation the other day talking to my younger sister about kids, that our particular family has chosen strong people to be our partners (that was always obvious) - but that we chose these partners because we crave the strictness and rules that come with those awesome people that were lacking so much when we were growing up. Are my kids perfect? No way, and I'd be silly to think they were. Am I trying to help them grow better into whole adults...you bet! I do like to remind myself that our parents did the best they could with the tools they had at the time, and now it's up to us, as with anyone else, to live and grow beyond them with love. I could spend days writing on this topic, and I thank you for bringing it to mind.

Your middle sister, Ellen
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