Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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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!

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