"In practice, we're all mostly making it up as we go along, …"

Surprisingly, I don't consider myself to be stupid. By many measures, though, I'm clearly not smart, certainly not THAT smart. In school, I learned that I was not smart, with this lesson repeatedly reinforced until it became almost the only learning I retained, which might mean that I was at least smart enough to learn that I wasn't smart. I've retained that foundational lesson through my entire adult life so far, reinforcing it through near constant repetition. For instance, Denver's close-in western suburbs feature several North/South arterials. I frequently use two of the most prominent ones, Kipling and Wadsworth, yet I can almost never remember either name. I know just where they are, but when The Muse asks me which route we're taking, I might hesitate a beat before replying that we're either taking the W or the J street. Unable to recall the precise name, I offer some lame placeholder instead. I'm forever calling Wadsworth Wordsworth, which seems like a workable-enough alternative. Numbered highways don't even get placeholders out of me. The ring freeway is either 730 or an unnamed entity, I cannot seem to retain its real designation. The highway between Golden and Boulder has no name as far as I'm concerned. I think it's ninety something, maybe seven. Yet I can usually navigate without overmuch trouble, the names hardly mattering in practice.

School taught me that I don't seem to store information in crisp little recoverable packets.
My memory seems more impressionistic, like a painting which appears as just smears of pigment up close, but pops into clearer resolution from across the room. I learned that I'm even less able than I am with street names to access information when it comes to procedures. Complicated (as in greater than two steps) methods for solving math problems come out in the same jumble as they apparently go in. I learned that I'm better off having others solve those sorts of problems. When I applied for the job at the insurance company that I would hold with some distinction for fifteen years, the HR clerk interviewing me corrected (off the record) the math part of the form because, she said, that she sensed that I might be well-suited for the job. This remained our little secret as I moved up in the company. Maybe I just looked the part.

School taught me that if I was disciplined, really focusing my attention, and practiced with many repetitions, all would come clear, except that it didn't. I derived from these experiences, a deepening conviction that I must not be truly disciplined, focused, or properly diligent. Practice seemed to render my shortcomings all the more manifest. So, school taught me how to be a sneaky little bastard, to creep around so as to avoid having to respond to impossible questions like street names or procedural sequences. I could talk around almost any subject, but I could not reliably show my work. I could understand geometry, but not to actually 'do' it. More importantly, I never did figure out why geometry was supposed to be interesting, other than as an example of extreme pedantry. I think I passed with a D and the scornful admonition that I should have applied myself more diligently.

School taught me that I could not realistically expect to win, for the line judges would inevitably apply metrics I could not deliver to, probably because I was stupid. I later came to understand that many different forms of intelligence exist. Octopuses, for instance, are reputed to be so intelligent that us humans have yet to decipher how their intelligence works. I concluded that my sort of intelligence, the sort that reliably falls short when measured against the accepted human standards for smartness, might be more octopus-like, a form that not even the most intelligent human has yet to comprehend. I certainly didn't comprehend it. I tried not to let this notion go to my head, where it might encourage my head to swell in bitter distain for all the smart people unable to comprehend my kind of smart, which they so blithely labeled stupid.

I grew up to become a teacher. In my classes, I asked the students what they wanted to learn rather than presuming that I might know what they needed to learn. I also asked them how they would know when they'd learned what they wanted to learn, acknowledging and accepting that this question might first prove fundamentally unanswerable. I allowed any student to abandon any learning objective if and when their stated objective became moot or a more alluring one appeared. I gave no tests, replacing them with experiences intended to serve as little experiments where each student could observe their own engagement and draw their own tentative conclusions. I tried to keep every iteration safe, so I wouldn't embarrass or chase off reluctant and serially discouraged learners like me. I adhered to one over-arching principle: Learned If You Do And Learned If You Don't, in homage, I suppose, to what I really learned in school.

I only rarely knew what any of my students learned in my classes. Later, maybe a decade later, I'd receive some glowing report from some one-time student, recounting what a difference their participation in that class had made in their lives. A PhD engineer had decided to become an artist instead, and thrived, for instance. Of course, I as the teacher had done little more than insist that my students could become their own masterful teacher, and to perhaps give wider berth to any self-described know-it-all teacher. In practice, we're all mostly making it up as we go along, whatever our major was then and however smart school judged us to be. I remain astounded, though, that I don't always or even often consider myself to be stupid. This state seems either a remarkable example of self-delusion or an unwarranted generosity towards myself. I don't seem to be quite smart enough to tell which.

©2019 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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