On Being A “Genius”

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

When I was five years old, I could name all (then) 48 US states and their capitals, plus be able to spell them. I also knew all (then) 34 US presidents and could spell them as well. A local paper wrote a one paragraph article about how sensational this was, for where I was living, illiteracy was common, and there was amazement that not only could I READ, but I could retain information and spell. How did I react to this public exposure? I was so embarrassed I tore the article out of the paper and started to eat it! I was five, for chrissake!

Last night on Channel Four was the first of a documentary series called “Child Genius” which chronicles the build-up to a competition for gifted primary school kids. The series shows not only the brilliance of these children, but the many ways in which their meddling parents seek to exploit that brilliance. It was a bit sad to see that the way these children were put on a pedestal isn’t much different from what it was like when I was a kid.

I’m not giving myself airs about being a genius. My IQ tested anywhere between 123 and 150 over the years, but even today there’s still a lot of stuff I’m embarrassed that I don’t know about. Because of my early learning experience, I was expected to just breeze through school, maybe even skip a grade or two on the way to becoming a rocket scientist or at least college professor. This expectation came more from the schools than from my parents, thankfully. I can’t begin to count the number of times my parents were told, at various conferences with teachers and counselors, how “Brian is not living up to his potential.”

Well, I was just a kid, and I give credit to my parents for letting me BE one. At age 10, I was more interested in baseball and Rock & Roll than I was History and Geography. My dad sometimes remarked, when I’d spout off my knowledge of record labels and catalogue numbers, “If only you applied this to your schoolwork.” I’d feel a bit guilty about it, but as happens to many of us who are told they’re gifted, we channel that gift in odd ways. When I was a teen, I still didn’t give much of a shit about most of my studies, though history and geography interested me more as I got more into politics.

On “Child Genius,” there were parents who, under the guise of helping their brilliant child blossom, set their expectations ridiculously high. In the first round, kids were asked to add three or four numbers, then divide the result by another number, and come up with an answer in a matter of seconds. As I was “playing along,” I got almost all the answers correct, but math was always one of my stronger subjects. I doubt that I’d have done as well at these kids’ age, mostly because I always sucked at tests, unless the tests were on US states or presidents. Some of the kids aced it, others didn’t. One kid whose older sister was also in the competition was seen crying after a poor showing in the first round. His parents were of the attitude, “Well, he’s gonna have to work harder.” Let him play football, damn it! I’d have HATED my parents if they treated me that way.

My mom certainly understood, for in the last three years we lived in Tucson, she was a teacher at a private school for gifted children. One would be hard pressed to find a more fucked up group of kids, most under 10, but already taking high school preparatory courses. Nearly all were spoiled rotten, having been told all their short lives that they’re more brilliant than everybody else and the world should kiss their collective ass. The parents in most cases were wealthy, so whatever the kids wanted, they usually got. I always remember the story of one girl of about 9 who took umbrage to my mom cautioning her. Her response was “Leave me alone, you damn fuckhead!” Her IQ was tested at 160. I also got to see the “artwork” of an 8-year-old whose IQ had tested at close to 200, but her drawings were of penises, derrieres, breasts and vaginas. Wonder if her parents encouraged that.

I got humbled at an early age, so there was no chance for me to flaunt my supposed intellect. In 5th grade, I and nine others were put in a progressive class with 6th graders, and I was constantly put in my place by either the teacher or the 6th graders. Until then, I had breezed my way through school with straight A’s; now it was a competition, and I disappointed more often than not. And if I was struggling on either a scholastic or social level, I never felt like I had any support from either the teacher or my classmates, so it was a pretty miserable school year. I’m not sure I ever felt fully comfortable in classrooms again. My attention span was never great before, but from that year on, I struggled with it, and it’s still a problem some 50 years hence.

I think IQ is over rated anyway. Yesterday, I was at a pub with a guy who works as a quiz master and a couple of his intellectual friends. Their Sunday activity consists of going to the pub and doing the Sunday Times cryptic crossword puzzle. For those that don’t understand cryptics, a sample clue: “Dilatory sort of hero worship (8)” The word “sort” refers to an anagram of the word “Dilatory,” and hero worship refers to the actual answer, which in this case is the 8-letter word “Idolatry.” I’m content that I can usually solve an entire puzzle with clues not even that difficult on maybe one out of every 10 puzzles I try. But I was clearly the weakest link here, as The Times crossword revels in its esoterica, and I was lost. I wasn’t quite as bad when they attempted the general knowledge puzzle, with each of us solving one clue, then passing to the next guy until we either finished the puzzle or quit. Well, forgive me for getting stumped, but I’d never heard the word “vivaporous,” which is an adjective referring to the bringing forth of live young which have developed inside the body, until it appeared in that puzzle. Once again I was humbled. My saving grace: The puzzle DID have one clue asking for the 13th president! (Millard Fillmore)

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