Last night at ‘Abusing-the-Universe’ writers group, the issue was raised as whether or not an intelligent main character in a story would ‘dumb down’ his conversational style when talking with his friends/squad mates (he’s military). One of our group members was very dismissive of the idea that he would and challenged the author to do better.
I disagree, at least among friends… you find a level of social interaction everyone’s happy with and that’s the level you stay on, for the most part… it’s generally not the height of intelligent discourse. You may go to that height on occasion, but most days, you’re just a bunch of people, hanging with each other.
But the whole thing put me in mind of an experience I had concerning perceived intelligence.
For the first seven-and-a-half years of my academic life (longer, actually, if you count kindergarten) I went to school in the same town I was born in. From 4th grade on, classes were divided into A, B & C groups, and depending on the year, how the wind blew, what the Chinese astrological sign was, either A or C was the ‘Advanced’ group, B was always the average group, and whichever of the two, A or C, wasn’t the advanced group was the ‘Slow’ group. I was always in the advanced group, I never really thought about it, most of my friends were there – it simply was the way things were.
There was bullying – never doubt that for an instant, but it was never based on or related to my intelligence in any way. I was fat, I had a goofy haircut, I was athletically disinclined, I was a mouthy little shit – take your pick.
Then my mother and I moved to Del Valle for about half a year and I received a first-class education in the perils of being different in any way at all… it just so happened that this set of lessons was primarily focused on my intelligence. I was smart, that was different (at least to the bullies – and face it, when you’re getting the shit beaten out of you, it’s the bullies’ opinions that really matter) and so I fixed that problem.
I got dumb – and did so in a right sprightly manner.
It got better… I stopped standing out… new victims raised their heads.
But my perception of myself remained ‘dumb’.
Moved back to Smithville, back to the people I’d grown up around. It was high school, a whole new kettle of fish – no A, B or C bullshit. Course material I wasn’t interested in, I struggled. I know now that I was smart enough to do the work, but it sure as shit didn’t seem so at the time. I gave lip service to repeated exhortations of “You’re more than smart enough to get this” but deep down I didn’t believe it because if I did I would get hurt – physically beaten – and I never wanted to go back there again.
In a rather unsurprising bit of rationalization, courses that I was interested in, I excelled at – and that’s because they were simple – they had to be, you see, or I couldn’t have done well at them. When friends struggled with them, I had no choice but to believe they were even less intelligent than I was. (By comparing test scores, that theory was to a large part borne out… though how I could simultaneously hold myself as ‘stupid’ and score as high or higher than classmates I knew were damn smart… well, that certainly wasn’t the most fucked-up set of conflicting beliefs I held, but it was close.)
It took a long time – years – for me to get over the “I have to be stupid or I’ll get hurt” issue. It was so much safer, emotionally, to go on believing that. Still run into echoes of it now, and it’s been 30+ years.
So, in a situation were everyone isn’t your friend, you either force yourself to fit in or you don’t… fine-tuning the ratio comes later, but as a rule, unless you feel safe and are sure you’re safe, you stay the fuck away from ‘different’… the nail that stands out gets the hammer and getting the hammer is bad.
Odd what you remember, 37 years later – my primary tormentor in Del Valle, can’t remember his name, want to say it was ‘John Davis’, but I’m pretty sure I’m wrong about that, pale yellow hair, effectively translucent skin – got to see a lot of it on his legs while he was kicking the shit out of me in gym class/P.E. – he got expelled after the worst of the beatings I got – not because I ratted him out, but because the dumb cocksucker threatened another student with a knife.
I pray to God there’s a hell and that vicious prick’s in it. I’m not at all comfortable with the amount of hate I still feel for him, but feel it I do.
Listening to: “Glenn’s Flight”, Bill Conti, “The Right Stuff” soundtrack
Mood: it’s been better