Naught but Doom Awaits the Clever Midgets!
by Jim Knipfel
Just last night, I was hunkered down on a Brooklyn-bound train, beaten nearly senseless by work, wanting nothing more than to get home to the silence, crack that big bottle of white that was waiting for me, and numb myself even further. The train, thank God, was quiet, as all crowded post-work trains are--until this squeaky little voice popped up right next to me:
"Daddy, have I told you that they've asked me to take yet another test?"
It had that clipped, nasal, high-falutin' tone about it that all too-smart children get when they try to prove how sophisty-cated they really are to the adults around them. I cringed, because I knew once this little 12 year-old in the prim dress, stylish hat and buckled shoes started yapping, she'd never shut up. They never do, and I had another ten stops left before home.
"Another test? Did you tell your mother about yet?"
"Yes, Daddy, I believe I spoke to her last night about it."
"She never called me. Where is she now, at work?"
"I believe her being at work is a distinct possibility."
I'm not exaggerating here. It was really that bad. Little kid, told she was "gifted and talented" maybe six years ago, accepts it at face value, and begins to act that way for Mommy and Daddy and their friends, who then go on to tell all their friends how precocious she is. Precocious children are among the most grating little monsters to infest the city--especially when they're acting up right next to me on a crowded train.
I wanted to grab her by her thin, sophisty-cated little shoulders and shake some sense into her.
"Give it up," I'd tell her, "be a normal fucking kid or you'll have nothing but despair waiting for you a few years down the road--and that despair will never, ever go away."
I know this to be true, because I used to be a little smarty-pants myself, and all my friends--few and far between as they were--were all little smarty-pantses, too. Problem is, when you're a bright little kid in Wisconsin, people don't praise you for it. Adults and peers don't fawn all over you, doing what they can to "support your gift." No, in Wisconsin, adults and kids alike just call you a "faggot" or a "freak" and beat the shit out of you at every possible opportunity.
When I was growing up, I planned to be all sorts of things. I wanted to be a seismologist at eight, an ichthyologist at ten. At 11, I was writing little movie screenplays. I was reading Nietzsche and teaching myself theoretical physics at 12. Despite the beatings, humiliations and other abuse at school, nothing deterred me from being a smart kid. I don't say this out of arrogance; I'm just saying this to set up the inevitable crash and burn.
My friends were the same way: Steve, who was raised in an academic household, had no real choice; he was going to be a classicist. P.A. planned to be a surgeon. Peter was studying anthropology in his spare time. Michele was the math whiz. Gary was going to be a naturalist. I'm not sure what Norby or Bob had planned. I don't think they made many plans--and they were the smartest of the lot.
On the surface, apart from being smart kids, we didn't have much in common. The thing that eventually spun us all together over a few years' time was the fact that we were all complete outcasts. Everybody else--the rich kids, the beautiful people, the jocks, the burnouts--they all had they're own little support groups, while we, independently, wandered the hallways alone and frightened, waiting for that next blow to the back of the skull. Over time, we found each other in all the same classes and reading some of the same books. Not long after that, we started founding religions and revolutionary political movements. Then things started going wrong.
How Norby knew as much as he did about absolutely everything is still beyond me. He was into punk rock before anybody west of New York knew what the hell punk rock was, forming Green Bay's first hardcore band, The Rat Eaters (later Suburban Mutilation), around 1980. In his early teens, Norby was hooked on Tab. Then it was speed. Then it was vodka. Last I heard, Norby was still in Green Bay, and had a job drawing bikinis on the models in the sex ads in the back of a local shopper. He'd been through rehab a few times after his sixth DWI conviction.
Bob was another case. Showed up to school once, maybe twice a week if he felt like it. Hung out mostly with the local "Satanists" (who used the moniker simply as an excuse to gobble hallucinogenics and kill stray animals). Everybody else assumed that he was stupid, or insane, or both. When Bob did show up for school, you never knew what he was going to be. One day he'd be a born-again, the next a Nazi, the next a revolutionary anarchist, the next a liberal socialist. An easy, mindless stunt, maybe, except that Bob knew and quoted the literature of whatever faction he claimed to be a part of on any particular day. If he was a born-again, he'd quote the Bible; a Nazi, and he'd quote Mein Kampf. He'd carve swastikas in the back of his hands with a razor blade one day, then transform them into elaborate crosses with the same razor blade the next. In the end, he really didn't believe in much of anything, but he knew European history like no professor I've ever met, and could whip me at chess without thinking about it.
After high school (from which I don't believe he ever graduated), Bob would disappear for months at a time, then pop up again in the strangest of places. Last account had him pushing a broom at one of Green Bay's shopping malls.
Steve, the born and raised intellectual, quit two different Ph.D. programs just before starting on his dissertations and is now a militant gay activist who puts other people's resumes together at a Kinko's in Ohio. Peter's a convicted child molester who works as a camp counselor in Oregon. Michele's a nun. After a stint in the Navy and a shot at marriage, Gary drives a forklift at a paper mill in Green Bay. I don't know what happened to P.A. after the pressures of pre-med led to a nervous breakdown. I kind of hope she's dead, but that's a personal matter.
As for me, my first suicide attempt came at age 15, and another one followed every year for the next seven years until I finally decided that I was both invincible and tired of life in madhouses. So I took to the bottle instead. Now I answer telephones, sign for packages and tell stupid little stories about myself.
I'm no sociologist, and I'm no longer a smart guy (well, maybe smarter than most of the people I deal with every day, but that's beside the point), so I'm not going to make any half-assed guesses as to why this should be, this connection between intelligence and failure. Pressure to succeed? Pressure to conform? I don't much care what the answer is. Someone once wrote that if you're called a genius at age 25, you're doomed. So what happens when you're called a genius at age 10?
My point here isn't to say that all smart kids will end up drunken, self-destructive, abject failures--just most of them, is all. And if anybody's taking bets, I'd put a nickel down that in ten years time, that smarty-pantsed little girl on the train will have a pair of dainty little scars running down her right wrist.
Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Artwork copyright Bob Hires. All rights reserved.
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