Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Not so smart


I admit to being a goodie-goodie as a little girl. I wanted to live up to the expectations of my adoptive family, and smartness was valued. My mother read voraciously and played lots of classical music on our Victrola. Conversations at dinner weren't full of intellectual challenges, but everybody there had a voice and could express an opinion. We dined together almost every night, though I do recall that I was allowed to eat on a TV tray to see "I Love Lucy."

I awoke every morning to a book beside my bed—I spent a great part of my childhood in a colorful world of increasingly difficult books, vivid stories and the imagination that radio listening encouraged. When I won every spelling bee in my fourth grade, my parents beamed. I developed a natural affinity for vocabulary because of my surroundings and the world of literature. Before all the tech devices today, I was a well-known figure at the public library only a block away from home. Nothing thrilled me more than finding the latest installment of a series like "The Bobbsey Twins" or "Sue Barton Student Nurse."

Recently I found a binder that my mother used for a college class she took. I was moved by her notes but also by a sense of loss that she never had an opportunity to delve further into the world of academics. She married young (at 18) and was the bulwark of my family; during the Depression years, before I was born, she spent most of her time caring for the many family members who shared our home. She once told me how they adorned their paltry 1932 Christmas tree with dime-store watches as gifts.

I was born 10 years into their marriage and never knew why my mother hadn't finished college. In fact, I was the first member of my parents' family to go to a university and receive a degree. It wasn't as common then for women of my mother's generation to attend college, especially during the Depression and then afterwards, in World War II. There were too many other survival paths to tread.

I naturally chose teaching as a career. A few years ago, when I found out just a wee bit about my original birth parents (no locations, town or names), I learned that my birth grandmother went to college in 1909, but only stayed a year before she married my grandfather. In my birth mother's family were a teacher, a banker and a collegian studying education. So, in terms of nature over nurture, I scored in both parts with my environment.

I never considered myself an intellectual snob, but as I look back over my life, I can see some misguided pride over my ability to speak with an array of synonyms and to express myself in writing. As I encountered so many people smarter than I, I became more modest about my smarts. Of course, I have done many stupid things, especially in matters of the heart.

I have a friend who has a riotous sense of humor and uses the Internet to send items I enjoy. Just this week I received from her an email with 30 questions testing how well one knows our government. In the past I have scored fairly well (though never perfectly) on some of these quizzes, but this time I assumed I'd be somewhat near the top; after all, I told myself, I read, am aware of current events and minored in social studies at UCLA. Alas, I missed a bunch of questions, only a couple of which I knew I would miss. So there goes the theory that I am as smart as most people. I was urged by the site to "brush up" and try the test at a later time. Woe is me! What will I do without my crutch of assumed intelligence? So I have my comeuppance: Better be humble about being smart.

My children's father has a debilitating neurological disease that causes dementia. It grieves me to see this happen to indeed one of the brightest men I've ever met. I remember two of his requests: one, that he not lose his mind before other ailments of old age, and the other to have his tombstone engraved with the words "Here lies a decent man." He will never lose his decency.

Come to think of it, that's more important than being smart. To be decent is the nobler goal, in my opinion.

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