Monday, June 2, 2008

Blessed be the Carnival.

First off, I encourage everyone to go check out the Carnival of Elitist Bastards. In honor of my fellow eggheads, I figured I'd quit linkfarming for a second and actually post something I'd written myself.

As long as I can remember I read several grade levels ahead of the other kids. What's more, I remembered what I read. When I ran out of books at home I hit the encyclopedia or my little illustrated-for-kids dictionary. I was a latch-key kid without cable TV, what else was I supposed to do?

One day in class, we were in the library and the teacher asked who knew what an encyclopedia was. I raised my hand, thinking that it'd be better if someone who knew the answer did so rather than the teacher calling on someone who didn't know. I told her that it's a book or set of books containing information in alphabetical order. Some subjects, such as art or history, have their own encyclopedia.

I wouldn't remember that definition to this day if not for the reaction I got. There was no relief that the other kids didn't have to answer. They recoiled like Puritans from a suspected witch. The teacher called on me again, and again, wanting answers from me. It only made it worse. I had transgressed. It turns out that the correct response to a teacher's question is to be one of his or her hapless victims so that other students can feel a solidarity in the face of all this horrid "schooling."

It was not until I was about twelve that I learned the trick. Until then I'd doggedly read and written and answered and done my best. Until then I got it wrong. The trick is to make people laugh. It's not that making people laugh will create happiness. Primates don't always (or even often) smile because they're happy. It's to relieve tension. It's a survival skill.

If you don't make them laugh, they will hate you.

So I became something of a class clown to bridge the social gap. People had an idea that I was smart, but because I danced and jigged and used my intelligence to make their day more amusing... I was okay despite the crime of intelligence. They knew I wasn't one of them, but at least I was in their service.

That's how I got through high school, and it got me through college. It was okay for me to know a few more things than other students as long as I used that knowledge to make them laugh. Gradually I came to rely on it. It became a mode of control. I had to make people smile, had to make people laugh, had to make them feel the way I wanted them to feel. It was the only power I had.

Unfortunately this doesn't work everywhere. My mother often proclaims her great pride in me, the first woman in the family to get a college degree. I'm the good kid, the smart kid, the world traveler and scholar who's making it without help from mom and dad. And yet I know she resents me as well. As glad as she is that I've accomplished what she wanted before she got knocked up, I think she resents me for being the one who did it, for being the one who went further.

I didn't really realize it until during an argument she brought up what was evidently supposed to be an example of my withering superiority. I used the word "obelisk" to describe something while in the car with my parents, and I guess it's not the kind of word that a wise daughter uses. When they didn't know what an obelisk was, it took me a second to find some less precise way to define it. To me an obelisk is an obelisk. Eventually I think I came out with "thin pointy tower" or something.

I guess my pause was too long, expressing some deep-seated disdain for these imbeciles I was trapped in a car with. During our recent argument, my mother commented defensively, "We can't all be as brilliant as Ashley Holmes."

What's the alternative? Treat her like she's stupid? Coming from a worldview that values intellect, it's hard to imagine wanting people around you to assume you're uneducated. It's hard to imagine wanting people to err on the side of dumbing themselves down for your poor benighted overloaded mind. I knew what an obelisk was, and I assumed she knew.

Both of these social failures, one in grade school and one only months ago, stem from the same sin. I slipped up and I didn't adequately hide my intelligence. I think it was Francois de La Rochefoucauld who said, "It is a great ability to be able to conceal one's ability." Great and valued. And necessary.

So I tip my hat to Dana and the others over at the Carnival. People need a space where it's safe to be intelligent and where you can assume other people value their knowledge... and yours. It is badly needed, and until the rest of the country catches up... Blessed be the Carnival of Elitist Bastards. Bastards unite!

3 comments:

Efrique said...

Good post. If there's a second carnival it would fit in.

Shovel Bum said...

My motto has always been, "We all can't be as smart as Ashley Holmes."

...It robs the universe of its confounded infinity.

Cobalt said...

<3 shovel bum