I was watching a report on The Fifth Estate recently. They were talking to MENSA members from across the world. More specifically, they were talking to the smartest man in the U.S.A., with an I.Q. in the 200’s. What do you think a man with this kind of intelligence does for a living? Is he a doctor? Does he work for NASA? Is he in a government think tank somewhere, trying to solve the world’s problems? None of the above. He doesn’t have the education. He’s a high school drop-out. He’s about 6’5″, and prefers to put his size to use. He’s a bouncer at a road house. But this got me thinking. What does it really mean to be smart?
I was labeled with one of the most terrifying labels you could put on a child: “gifted.” I guess a label like that wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for the fact that our school system treats gifted children like the mentally handicapped. We are singled out, placed in “special” classes and given a “special” curriculum. I guess, then, I was lucky. Being the only one with that brand at my school, no one had any idea what should be done with me. So, I was made to plod along with the rest of my classmates, following the regular curriculum. You’d think that would normalize things, but it didn’t. When you score 85% on a test with nary an effort, that tends to single you out without the benefit of a special class. But, as I soon discovered, the special classes were to come in high school.
I’m sure by now you are sick of how I refer to high school as hell, but let me revisit this once again. Again, I was having an average of around 83% with hardly an effort. But this time, it was in the hard courses. Math 30. English 30. Chem 30. Essentially, all courses ending with the number “30.” Seba Beach was a school where a 30 course only had about 4 or 5 students, and the 33 courses were overflowing. Hell, I was the only Physics 30 student, so was I forced to take it through correspondence. Seba, in my time, was a school that favoured physical pleasures over intellectual capabilities. An Australian exchange student once remarked to me, “I’ve never seen a school where people brag about how many beers they had before coming to their first class.” Seba had excellent extracurricular activities in the form of the basketball and volleyball teams, but no form of activity to further the mind. And, with my mother being on the school board, I’ve seen the statistics showing failing student after failing student, except for the years that I was there to pull the average up. Those years have been branded “anomalous.” Hell, when I made the honour roll in grade 10, I had to fight to get my plaque because it had been so long since Seba had a grade 10 student make the honour roll, that they didn’t bother checking that year. I went on to university and got two degrees. My classmates took their high school diplomas to see what kind of job they could get with just that. And now, they make $30/h slinging wrenches on oil rigs, and I bag their groceries.
What ever happened to my so-called gift? It dried up halfway through university. My average in freshman was 8.4 (out of nine). My graduating average was 6.8. Just a slow, steady decline from gifted to average. And that 6.8 didn’t come easily. I started working for it, although not as hard as I should have. Did the gift really dry up, or did I not look after it like I should have? The work got harder, but my study techniques and work habits generally remained the same. My mother theorizes that my age finally caught up with my I.Q., but I have trouble accepting that. Would all that labeling have been applied to something that would be outgrown?
Ultimately, what did this label get me? A childhood of heartache, a box full of certificates and plaques, and two useless degrees. I’m sure that the label of “gifted” brings more pain to a person looking back on his/her childhood like no other. When you were young, with tears in your eyes because people thought you were “different,” parents and teachers would cheer you up with stories of being given that gift for a reason and visions of better things in store for you than those who neglect their studies. So, with renewed vigor you’d go back to your textbooks. And now, you’re full grown. No greatness. No higher purpose. Just a menial, low-paying job. But hey, you’re gifted.
Maybe my old classmates had it right back then. Get hammered before class. Nothing else mattered, just having fun. Who wants to sit in some dumb math class? I’m never going to have to use conics in my daily life. May as well head down to the beach and get a burger. And I will admit, that is a bit of a philosophy I adopted in my final year at university. Will a potential employer really care that my average was only 6.8? They’ll just care that I’ve got my degree. So what’s the point of labeling a kid as “gifted” if it’s not going to matter in the real world? I may not have agreed with a lot of what my high school compatriots did, but they did have one philosophy right.
They may have been failing. They may have been too drunk for their classes. They may have had no hope at all for a bright future. But they were happy. And as I look back, the primary question becomes was I happy? Yes, there was a smile on my face every time I got another honor roll certificate, and I enjoyed my 15 seconds of fame in front of the school. And while most of my fellow high schoolers were having their parties in the hallways, I wouldn’t trade my time in the science lab for anything. [See, my science teacher trusted me enough to let me conduct my own experiments during lunch hours.] And true, my average was 6.8, but you can’t ignore that the studies always came before my favourite part of university: my radio show. So, yes, I was happy.
I once read somewhere that the only things you could truly be gifted in where math and music. Some even argued that it was the same gift because math and music have certain intrinsic similarities and use the same part of the brain. Was I really gifted to begin with, then? True, I did do well in math, but as my English teacher pointed out, I seemed to be gifted in everything. Was it really a gift? Or just blind luck? Does it matter? I’m happy. It all goes back to the smartest man in America; that bouncer. With his I.Q. he could easily join up with any research team. But he’s happy being a bouncer. I’ve never had my I.Q. tested. Am I truly gifted, as those teachers diagnosed, or just average? I guess ignorance truly is bliss. In the end, being gifted means nothing. Being happy with yourself is everything.