Saturday, November 29, 2014

I Used to be a Genius

An extraordinary percentage of my relatives live from their creative talents, one way or another, including me. We have all grown up with the unshakable conviction that a life spent doing what you love is worthy, no matter what you earn or whether the world notices. We're an accepting and inclusive bunch, even when (as happens randomly in every generation) a mutant child or two is born, curiously uninterested in anything remotely artistic. Though such a child may show mystifying tendencies, such as an inexplicable interest in accountancy or town management, the only thing that really counts to us, that instantly wins family approval and respect, is passion. And we really, really like intelligence, too.

So it really was rather fortunate for me that I was such an exceptional child. I knew this, because so many of the children my age were clearly stupid, and also because, when I was 9 or 10, I overheard my class teacher telling a policeman that I had a genius-level IQ. At the time, I was standing in a sort of icy-cold daze in the corridor outside the classroom, overcome with terrified remorse for A) bunking history with my friend and then B) deciding, inexplicably, that we could totally get away with it if we said we had been trapped in the bathroom by a scary man in a black leather jacket, and C) completely and utterly failing to foresee that being believed would inevitably lead to the POLICE being called.

Consumed with guilt, and still horrified at my hitherto unsuspected capacity for spontaneous duplicity, I nevertheless could not help noticing the intriguing fact that a large number of adults had believed me. I had to at least consider the possibility that this could be because I was indeed a genius, in which case, I should probably be on the lookout for signs of any superior intellectual capacity. Modestly, of course. I was already a voracious locust of a reader, but now that I was most likely a genius, it seemed likely that I might have developed a taste for the books on my parents' bookshelf.

I sat cross-legged on the carpet and looked at the bland, mono-colour spines. Since I might very well be a genius, and geniuses doubtless read adult books without pictures, it followed logically that I probably liked these books, and just hadn't noticed it yet. Old habits die hard, though, and my eyes kept sliding to the only book on the shelf with a picture on it. The whole cover was, in fact, a black and white photograph, a simple title - The Yellow Star. As I reached for it, my mom walked into the room, and immediately sat down with me. "There are books on this shelf with some very difficult, horrible things in them, " she said. "Some people would not let children read them. But I think you are old enough to choose whether or not you want to. It's up to you."

I took that book up to my room, feeling solemnly mature and definitely of above average intelligence. I began to read and within moments, I was swept away, engulfed in a flood I had never imagined could exist, a tide of horror and disbelief at the unspeakable thing that was the Holocaust, at the wrenching, impossible news that people did this, people died like this, in my world, where my . I forgot that I was practicing to be a genius. I wept and I thought, and I wept and absorbed. I read it over and over again, searching for a key of some kind, a way to make sense of these impossible, unforgettable, terrible truths. When I finished it, I found I couldn't stop. I had to know more. I read every book that shelf, immersing myself in history from countless eras. I flew over words I didn't understand, hungry to KNOW, to understand why and how it could be possible for humans to do such terrible things.

I was a genius until I was twelve, the only kid in South Africa at the time to get 100% on the official aptitude test for language, a prodigy with the language skills of a varsity student and an astonishing grasp of European history. I was placed in a gifted kids' program, which was gratifying, though disappointingly bland. Still, there I was, secure in my clever little spot in the sun... And then the school district had the audacity to retest my IQ... And as far as I was concerned, I failed. In a crushing blow to my status as a child prodigy, not only was I not, in actual fact, a genius, but adding insult to ego injury, my little brother  - MY LITTLE BROTHER - had made the genius grade. How rude, after all the years I'd spent practising my mysteriously knowing, gently wise Genius Expression. When you have been a genius, 'Above Average' is cold comfort.

At least I still had my prodigious language skills, reading at varsity level, still special after all. Until one day, when I was 20, it suddenly dawned on me that my entire generation was now reading at Varsity Level. Just like that, I was ordinary. Any illusions of genius that I may have secretly been clinging to snuck away in embarrassment when someone pointed out that it took me until the age of 20 to figure out the 'everyone reading at varsity level' thing.

Having assumed for a long time that I would obviously be very good, and quite possibly GREAT at something one day, it took me a while to get comfortable with who I actually am, a 'Jack of all Trades, Master of None' type. It took longer still to grasp that this, in itself, is a different - and very valuable - kind of genius. I will never be 'great' at anything, which is a tremendous relief, since I am so very, very busy learning how to be passably competent at MANY things, and as it turns out, actually rather good at a few others, if I say so myself. It turns out I have an insatiable appetite for novelty and fresh challenges. And the dawning realisation, at long last, of what riches that holds for me?

Well, that's genius, that is.


  1. I, too, have been settling down and chatting with the idea that just because I *can do anything, just because I *could have a very successful career and make loads of money, doesn't mean that's what I actually want to do. Money is not what brings me joy or satisfaction now, so why would it suddenly do that later? I would actually rather be happy than 'successful'. *Deep breaths.* Right then, Arts Degree, here I come.

  2. Money or the box? After many many years of life... sigh I have to say, go for the MONEY!!!! ;)