From the Smiter Archives, Feb. 17, 2001
Not too long ago I was having a sulk about my snail-like progress in my karate classes (I’ve been a Yellow Belt — the next-to-lowest level — for longer than most of you have had adult teeth), and about the difficulties of getting down to the hard slogging involved in becoming a Writer. And after some moaning and groaning, I realized that I was cross because it all takes so LONG: that I want to Be something (like a Black Belt or the next Bill Bryson) without the nuisance and bother of working for it.
Obviously I am not having a unique experience here, but in my case I sometimes think this dilemma is one of the downsides of my having been tossed into the Advancement (or Gifted) program as a young child. For four years we, The Chosen, rested on our intellectual laurels and basked in the delights of being goggled at by every visiting teacher in the province and told how very special and talented we all were.
“We expect great things of you!” the principal would bleat enthusiastically as he paraded another amazed group of officials in front of our class.
It was assumed that because we were bright, we would naturally go on to do anything we wanted with our lives, with minimal effort or direction: since reading and math and other Mensa-worthy tricks came so quickly to us, it was assumed that we would sail magically through life mastering whatever task was put in front of us. We’d snap our fingers like Samantha on “Bewitched” and Poof! I’m a lawyer! Hola! I’m a brain surgeon! Wow! I’m the next Margaret Atwood/Bill Gates/Pierre Trudeau!
To be sure, there were a few of us who made it big: Andrea is a lawyer; Ann and Stephen G. became doctors. But most of the rest of us are just sort of chugging along at various crappy jobs in a vaguely puzzled way, ultimately slogging it out with the rest of the shleps to whom we were told we were so superior.
It wasn’t a complete waste, of course. I very much enjoyed acting out the adventures of Richard the Lionheart (with songs we wrote ourselves), reading Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (including all the spicy bits) at the age of nine, carving totem poles and singing complicated French ballads.
But the shine came off it just a bit when I tumbled out into the bright light of Grade nine at a regular high school and it was discovered that I didn’t know the name of our Prime Minister or the capital of Canada, and was bereft of even the most basic grasp of chemistry — in other words, all the stuff the Ordinary Kids had been pounding away at while we were writing our own Chinese opera in the Special Wing of the school.
Hard to say what to do with the bright kids, isn’t it? Keep them in with the “regular” kids and they’re bored comatose and end up setting the school on fire. Separate them out and they tend to end up as freaks with tape on their glasses. In specialized arenas — dance, say, or sports — the ones who stand out tend to go on to great careers: think of Karen Kain or Rex Harrington, Wayne Gretzky, Jet Li, or Sandra Schmirler.
But in the academic milieu, being a Brain in and of itself is no guarantee of success, as Daniel Goleman points out in his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence: without at least a rudimentary grasp of how to get along with others (even the non-Gifted! what a concept!), slog through the hard and boring parts of life, set goals and work like hell for what you want, even the most outstanding IQ scores are utterly meaningless. In the real world, no one really gives a shit that you learned to read at the age of two or can say the alphabet backwards in seven different languages, unless you’re angling for a career in a circus sideshow.
It’s a bugger of a lesson to learn as an adult, to be sure, but in the end it appears that all our parents’ tiresome drivel about elbow grease, determination and noses to grindstones is true: there’s no free ride, no matter how smart or how ultimately charming you may be.
So I’ll swallow what’s left of my pride, work hard on my karate drills and write as much as I can until I succeed or collapse of a heart attack trying. And should I be blessed with children, I will be sure to pass on these pearls of wisdom to them, along with the fact that when I was a child, I walked to my Gifted Classes uphill both ways, through snow up to my waist, even in summer.
Meanwhile, would anyone care to hear me recite the alphabet backwards in Russian?