Something just happened to me that I need to process. So as I often do, I am writing to process.
I was walking home on this beautiful, sunny day in Philadelphia (no, it’s not always sunny in Philadelphia, but it certainly was today). I was in such a great mood, feeling free, and alive, and looking forward to the start of a new life. As I strolled through the park, looking around me at the beauty of everything and everyone, I noticed an old man with his head down, holding his bloody nose. I immediately felt a tingle down my spine, and an intense feeling of familiar apprehension. Confused, I sat down on a nearby park bench and tried to understand what just happened. Why was I feeling this way? After a few moments, it hit me like a ton of bricks: This is the man who forever changed my life.
I’ve told this story many times before, through my books and talks, but in a nutshell: When I was in high school, there was a school psychologist who drew a bell curve on a napkin and pointed out that I was below average intelligence, and told me that intelligence never changed. This moment fueled me to study the science of intelligence, and eventually, to propose a new theory of intelligence. I couldn’t believe this very man was sitting only a few park benches away from me, bloody nose, no less. What do I do? Do I approach him and tell him who I am? Do I try to help him? His is old and retired: is there any point right now, other than my own self-satisfaction, of telling him what he did and how it influenced me to become who I am today? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this moment felt to me what it must feel like for anyone who is abused as a child and is forced as an adult to face the very person who caused them so much pain.
Heart thumping, palms sweating, I approached him and asked if he was [name here to protect him]. He looked up, bloody nose and all, and said that yes, it was him. I couldn’t believe it. It really was him. What do you want?, he asked. Hi, I was a student of yours in high school, I said. He smiled, and I asked if I could sit down. He said yes, and told me he was trying to stop a bloody nose, something which I could have told him.
I sat down, with no animosity at all (which surprised me, as I had often wondered how I’d feel if I ever confronted this person), and just looked at him with love and curiosity. Can I help you?, I asked. He said thanks, but he’d be OK. Then he proceeded to tell me about a “disabled” young man he was currently helping, who has a very low working memory score, and is doing very little with his life. He then started rattling off the low IQ subtest scores of this man. I started to shake, hopefully not noticeably. I couldn’t believe it. Are you fucking kidding me?, I thought to myself. This man hasn’t changed at all!
He continued to speak for about 5 minutes about how this young man really needed him, and how there wasn’t much hope for him, with his test anxiety and low scores, and all. At this point, I interjected: You know, I actually had really terrible test anxiety as a kid. To which he responded, Well, yea, you had test anxiety with a lot of gray matter. This guy has zero gray matter. I almost fainted. Literally.
Sitting up straight on the bench, I asked him, What are his strengths? He looked quizzically at me and responded, His what?, as though no one had ever asked him this question before. In the next 5 minutes, I found out that while this guy he was trying to help had a truly low working memory score, and a lot of test anxiety, his overall IQ was actually not so bad, plus he was a very “generous” and “kind” person (although he said this means a lot of people take advantage of him). He also loves DJing, and even “has a great memory for DJing”. I asked him if he ever heard of twice-exceptional children, a field in which I do some research. He said he had never heard of the term, but that there wasn’t much to this guy that was “traditionally gifted”. Again, I almost fainted. I gave him some suggestions for helping this young man, and offered to help if I could.
Finally, I just bit the bullet: You know, you influenced me to go into the field, I told him. I told him that his drawing of the bell curve that one day inspired me to study the nature of human intelligence. Oh, I was just looking at a score, he said. I know, I said, mustering a warm smile, deciding not to push it. I told him I edited the Handbook of Intelligence with Robert Sternberg. That’s nice, he said, But I don’t read much non-fiction. True to his word, he held a copy of Infinite Jest in his hands. I asked him if he ever heard of Robert Sternberg, and he said he had not.
At this point, I just looked at this retired, elderly, school psychologist with a bloody nose, and just saw a flawed human. As am I. As are you. For over 20 years, I had built this person up so much in my mind to almost mythological proportions. This was a by-the-book retired school psychologist with a loving wife, friends, and a young man he is trying to help, even though it was clearly difficult for him to see beyond the man’s difficulties to build off his strengths.
At this point, he complained that bird droppings kept falling on him, so we stood up and walked a bit in the park. Then we said our goodbyes, and he said that maybe we’d see each other again. I don’t know if we will. I also don’t know if anything I said changed his mind about human potential, or whether he will focus more on the strengths of the man he is trying to help.
All I do know is that earlier today, I felt free. Now, after this encounter, I feel completely free.