Not a Genius (Or, a brief digression about the importance of reading comprehension, a good memory, and learning the meaning behind the Socratic dictum)


I’ve always said that the title for my memoirs would be But I Digress… because of my penchant for tangential thinking and apparent inability to stay on-topic. But there is another title contender.

Not a Genius, by Firewater (or whatever name I might be using when the time comes).

While it’s true that I’m not a genius, I have more than just anecdotal evidence to prove this statement. I’ve actually been tested. More than once.

You see, the thing is, when I was young, a number of factors led a few adults to believe that I was gifted intellectually.

I began to read even before I was in kindergarten and was always reading above my grade level even while in grammar school.

The ability to read is not a true indicator of genius.

My parents were both readers, and I’m certain that I was influenced by this. My mother enrolled me in the Weekly Reader Book Club when I was quite young, which also encouraged me. I was an only child until I was a teenager, and moved around a bit until I started second grade in South Carolina, after kindergarten and first grade in Puerto Rico, where my father was stationed in the Navy at the time.

In PR, I was lonely and had few friends, and I loved stories. So, naturally, I wanted to read. It’s that escapist thing I’ve talked about before. Fictional worlds were preferable to the real world.

I would go as far as to say that, even as a five-year-old, I had a passion for reading. To this day I have a fierce curiosity to learn things I know nothing about. When I was young, I believed that all the secrets I sought were contained in books I hadn’t read yet. I still believe this, only I’ve expanded that trove of knowledge to include media other than books, like the computer, recordings (video and audio), and oral history (directly from the brains of people I meet every day).

A decade or so ago, my granddaughter Taylee made a comment that still delights me today. She was a precocious youngster, and we knew she was intelligent even before she could walk or speak in complete sentences. She always picked up on things quickly. A lot of this she owed to the fact that she had a sister who was six years older. Taylee was always in a hurry to learn how to do things, trying to catch up.

I don’t remember the conversation that led to her comment, just the comment itself. I’m guessing she was only five or six at the time. Just learning her alphabet and the rudiments of reading.

Very earnestly, she turned to her grandmother and me. “I already know everything,” she said. “I just don’t know how to read.”

This delighted me then and now. She didn’t really know everything, of course, but she thought she knew everything that was important for her to know at the time, except that she didn’t know how to read yet.

Or she’s an old soul who had been reincarnated in the body of my granddaughter. I don’t truly believe that, but I’m trying to be more open-minded.

She demonstrated the same passion to learn how to read that I did at around her age. She learned quickly and she reads well. She is in high school now and has always made good grades. Heck, she might even be a genius. I’m not saying that she’s not.

I’m just saying that being able to read well is not a true indicator of genius. I am my own case in point.

I do believe that the ability to read and comprehend what you’re reading is crucial to making good grades in school. It certainly helped me. I think it’s helped my granddaughter, too.

The other thing that helps a person ensure good school grades is the ability to tell your instructors exactly what they want to hear. That doesn’t require critical thinking whatsoever. Just the ability to remember and parrot back exactly what the teacher said in the first place. We all want people to agree with us.

I was gifted with a good memory. I’m not eidetic, but my memory was always visual in nature, and I had good recall. Again, a good memory is not a true indicator of genius. But it can fool people into believing you’re a genius, especially if you can repeat the words of your teacher back to them and make them sound like you also arrived at whatever conclusion they had already made.

I realize how narcissistic this is, but when I hear people agree with things I’ve said, I automatically believe they are smart. And I know what’s going on.

Since grammar school, I’ve done just about everything possible to destroy my memory. Several concussions. A dalliance with alcohol and drugs. Just simply getting older.

My memory still isn’t bad, just not as good as it once was. Every day, I’m discovering that I’ve remembered certain things that happened wrong. Or is it wrongly? Adverbs always screw with me. See? Not a genius.

My memory is good enough to write a memoir, but probably not good enough to write an autobiography, if you know what I mean. A memoir makes allowances for remembering things differently than others might. An autobiography suggests things like fact-checking and, well, being truthful.

I did well enough in school that they tried to talk my parents into allowing me to skip a grade or two. I remain eternally grateful to my mom and dad for allowing me to make the decision, which was to not skip ahead. I didn’t want to leave my friends, and I didn’t want to feel different. I wasn’t especially ambitious, at least not in the sense that I wanted to graduate early or win the Nobel or anything. And I knew I wasn’t a genius.

The standardized tests of the time indicated that I was reasonably intelligent, or at least not mentally dull, but that may have been just in comparison to the students in my school, which may have turned out a few geniuses who weren’t me but no one I can readily point to. My teachers at the time bragged about me to my parents, but I don’t recall any of them using the word “genius.” My parents may have referred to me as “the little genius” more than once after that, but it was never meant as a compliment.

One of my dad’s favorite phrases? “A‘s at school and F‘s at home.” It’s shit like this that makes having even a reasonably good memory problematic at times. Let it go, FW. Let it go.

Anyway, I didn’t skip grades, graduate early or earn my doctorate at the age of twelve. You know, the way geniuses do. Because, obviously, I am no genius.

If you had asked me as late as high school, where my grades were pretty good (at least until my junior year—more on that in a moment), I don’t think I would have told you that I thought I was smart. Again, I chalk up whatever success I had, academically speaking, to reading comprehension and to having a better than average memory. I hadn’t yet learned the benefits of healthy skepticism or how to think critically rather than regurgitate the facts and ideas of other people.

I flirted with critical thinking in the eleventh grade, my worst year of high school, when I seemed determined to make F‘s at school as well as home. It was my rebellious phase, or one of them. I had managed to figure out, using only logic and common sense, that I would never be able to afford to go to college. This is saying a lot because it was much cheaper then than it is now. For reasons I can’t even begin to explain—we can blame television sitcom families, if you’d like—I just always assumed I was going to college. Without ever consciously thinking about it, I assumed my parents had put away money while I was growing up. A college fund, I think they called it on those television shows.

Not only am I not a genius, but I’m also pretty naive as well.

I started to write this sentence in past tense. But no, it still applies.

I began to realize that making all of those good grades was a waste of my time if I was going to end up working in the textile mills like most of my family members had at one time or another. I stopped trying too hard. I began to cut school on a regular basis. I ramped up my pot smoking and alcohol drinking. I wasn’t a saint before this time, but I began to approach partying like it was a job. My grades began to slip, and I started hanging out with the wrong crowd, begging them to influence me to make bad decisions. They did. And I did.

It was around this time that I attempted to get into the U.S. Army.

Although I was at a low point in my life, I hadn’t given up on going to college. I thought that joining the service might be the answer to going someday in the future. I had messed up my left foot and leg in an accident a few years before, and I was worried that this would somehow prevent me from enlisting. It didn’t get me rejected outright, but my blood pressure was dangerously through the roof during my physical and they wouldn’t allow me to take the oath that day. I was nervous, of course. Mostly because I was having to parade around naked in front of a female army nurse who was threatening to shoot off anything she hadn’t seen before. She also threatened catheterization for anyone unable to give a urine sample.

I was supposed to come back and try again in a few weeks.

I never did.

I felt like a total failure after not making it through my army physical. People gave me well-meaning advice and words of intended comfort, such as “Everything happens for a reason,” which I’m always tempted to follow up with a punch to the speaker’s nose and encourage them to explain the reason for that. “When one door closes, another one opens.” Stuff like that. Possibly also nose-punch worthy.

This makes me sound like a more violent person than I intended. I don’t go around punching people in the nose. Honest. Not often, at any rate.

But something good did come from all of this. When the army recruiter began showing up at my high school, I was suddenly on the radar of the guidance counselors’ office. I don’t think I ever spoke to a guidance counselor at my high school prior to this. They wanted to know why a student with my GPA—at least up to that point—was trying to go into the service instead of looking at colleges. Looking at my record also revealed the disturbing downward trend in my grades that year. I was obviously a student in trouble.

I told the guidance counselor the truth. Or at least what I believed to be the truth, which feels like the same thing. My parents were barely living paycheck to paycheck. I couldn’t afford to go to college and no longer saw the point of giving high school my full attention. I was going to be able to coast through on fumes and graduate. I wasn’t planning to drop out. But it seemed useless to bust my ass for a piece of paper that I was going to get anyway.

On that day, I learned about scholarships and student loans and grants. The counselor assured me that I had a definite shot at a scholarship. I would never be able to be my class valedictorian, but if I applied myself to my schoolwork and exceled during my senior year, after they signed me up for every AP (Advanced Placement) course offered at my school, they assured me that I would have a fighting chance at a scholarship.

I believed the counselors. Not just because I’m naive but because they didn’t go so far as to guarantee or even hint at a guarantee of a scholarship. A fighting chance was realistic, and it motivated me to . . . well, fight. When you have no hope, a glimmer of hope is the only light you need to find your way.

Long story made slightly shorter, I applied myself after the Lost Year, brought my grades up and eventually earned a four-year, full-tuition scholarship that helped me earn a college degree as well. Along with loans. And grants. And a full-time job.

My guidance counselors talked about my test scoring as well. Apparently, I tested well, although they never used the word “genius” either. When I took the SAT, I scored in the mid-1400s and never bothered to retake it. That score probably wouldn’t have been enough on its own to get me into MIT or Harvard, but it was plenty high enough for the University of South Carolina, the only school I ever considered attending.

I blossomed during college. Physically, socially and intellectually. The less rigid structure of college classes suited me, and many of the courses I took taught me the value of critical thinking. Most of my professors weren’t satisfied with multiple-choice tests, and the ability to read for understanding and to express myself in writing allowed me to earn high-enough grades to keep my scholarship.

It was attending college that really drove home the fact that I wasn’t a genius. I gained in wisdom, in the Socratic sense that I became convinced that I really knew nothing. I learned to doubt everything I had previously been convinced to be True, with the captial T. And I became much more open-minded. About everything.

This was the most important thing I learned in college. And, while I did become smarter —maybe just a bit— it doesn’t take a genius to realize that it’s the search for knowledge rather than absolute knowledge itself that has true value. You should be skeptical of anyone claiming to know the Truth about anything.

Even me. I am not a genius.


3 thoughts on “Not a Genius (Or, a brief digression about the importance of reading comprehension, a good memory, and learning the meaning behind the Socratic dictum)

  1. Good day to you, sir, and I hope it finds you well! I find it amazing how instructive it can be when I have a similar start to someone else’s story before it digresses so dramatically. I also enjoy these little “slices of life” from on-line acquaintances who have heretofore been simply names at the top of articles.

    My grandma had me reading and writing (at least in block capitals, which I still do to this day) by the age of three. I wasn’t put in kindergarten because of it. Similar, right? But I found school generally boring, and hung on with marginal grades in everything except reading and writing through high school. I also tested well, which meant that I was considered lazy and rebellious, and ways were found to punish me accordingly.

    I never considered college even though the Viet Nam War was raging and I knew that if I didn’t go, my next stop would be wading through a rice paddy waiting to get shot. In my mind, this was a better fate than facing another four years of school. When LBJ announced that 500,000 men would be drafted, even I could read the writing on the wall. I dropped out during the summer after 11th grade and joined the navy. They came up with a number of interesting ways to kill me, but none of them involved placing me in front of a dedicated communist marksman, and I learned some useful skills during my stay that have seen me through a long and productive life.

    I’ve gone on far too long with this intrusion on your bio; I just wanted to highlight how, when you give two kids the same start in life, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to wind up in the same place. But no matter how we get here, the resourceful always seem to find our way to a life that works for us. There’s no real conclusion here, just an anecdote from the road. It was fun to hear your story, and here’s to being resourceful!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing a part of your story as well, my friend. Reading and writing were always my strengths, like yours. I was interested in science and math, most of the time, so I did okay there as well, but didn’t have a natural aptitude. I hated history until I finally had a good history teacher in college.

    Thank you for your service, by the way. As you might infer from my bio, I gave it at least a half-hearted attempt to join up as well. If there had been a war going on at the time, they probably wouldn’t have cared about my blood pressure and my story would have ended differently. I was a Navy brat, however. Maybe I get partial credit for time served.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very possibly they would have; the military seems to look the other way when their main need is cannon-fodder. And yeah, you get credit with me at least. You didn’t know how they were going to act when you volunteered.

      The “history teacher” that got me interested in that subject was the Avalon Hill Game Company. The same year I started junior high, I was introduced to their games which, instead of racing around a track and trying to bankrupt the other players, you took on the role of a general at Gettysburg or Normandy, and commanded the historical armies to victory or defeat. After a while I began to develop an interest in how those armies came to be in that place at that time, the politics behind it, the personalities and seemingly unrelated world events, and I made it my business to find out.

      Most of my education is like that. It’s very thorough in the areas that I’m interested in, but there’s no organization to it, no formal structure. Astronomy interests me. I can talk at length about certain stars and stellar events, for example, that I’ve taken the time to study, but I have no unified theory of how everything works together. I can fix a faucet, but I can’t build a house. I can change a clutch, but I can’t build a car. Okay, I’m rambling again. The point is that college gives you advantages that I don’t have, but for a self-educator, I’ve managed all right. I guess I’d have to say I owe the navy. Didn’t enjoy it, and didn’t stay long, but they gave me a hell of a good launch into life.

      Liked by 1 person

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