Can I return it?

I remember the Kelly LeBrock Pantene commercial from the 80’s: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”  I was a teenager, so I thought, I could never hate you! I mean, have you seen Weird Science?

Recently, I’ve discovered a new body of research and yet another category I fit into: “gifted.”  A lot of the AD(H)D blogs I’ve been reading point to that area of research, and guess what?  It is another area of contention.  Can you be both gifted and AD(H)D?  It’s a simple question without simple answers, other than “it depends who you talk to.”

So, gifted.   I hadn’t heard that for awhile.  I used to go to these events in the fourth and fifth grade that were some sort of smart fair for “the gifted and talented.”  I remember going in order to lose at chess to a grown up, to play with lasers and holograms, to dissect a sheep’s brain.  The whole thing was weird and uncomfortable, because I didn’t know any of these people and wasn’t there long enough to figure out the social rules.

As I’ve written before, I stopped believing in my fundamental smartness after my first year of college.  But after my recent testing I started poking around the Mensa web site, and found out that I qualify for membership based on my ACT and GRE scores.  (ACT composite of 29 in 1988; GRE composite of 2010 in 1993.)  What caught my attention is that I thought I was getting dumber the longer I was in college, but my GRE scores are, related to IQ,  higher than the ACT score. In other words, I qualify more clearly with my GRE score.  Not exactly scientific, but the opposite of what I thought anyway.

Since then, I’ve been walking around with a spring in my step.  I am smart.  I want to tell strangers on the street: “You know, I qualify for Mensa.”  I don’t think my mailman cares too much about that.  I want to join Mensa so I can buy the t-shirt and the mug, so that people will whisper as I walk by “There goes Jon; he’s a two-percenter, you know.”

But, then I remember that it’s not been terribly useful to be so “smart. ” It further underscores my negative self talk: you are too smart to keep doing these dumb things.

Like what?  Like never finishing projects, not returning email, not paying bills on time, forgetting meetings and commitments, wasting time when there’s urgent work to do.  It’s not like I sit in my den of evil cackling away at the inferiority of the people sending me emails, projects, and bills.  I don’t think it’s any way beneath my intellect to do these things.  It’s quite the opposite.  I feel like I can’t do these mundane tasks that everyone else seems to be able to do just fine, so I must be dumb.  The days when I can be calmly productive seem liberating, so I definitely want to do these things, at least in the abstract.

Going through school was no easy matter as a “gifted” student. Anything less than an A seemed like a failure.  I endured endless teasing in the fifth grade for crying in class when I failed a little five-question quiz, the only such test I had ever failed.  I became competitive, and an annoying watchdog for any hint of unfairness in grading.  (Perhaps this quality is one reason I have trouble giving out grades: I imagine all my students are hovering out there, just waiting to pounce at the first sign of any inequity in my grading.)  Healthy competitiveness is okay, but there’s a streak of pride in me that always wants to win, that never wants to be wrong.  That’s why I continually play chess on the iPod on the easiest level.  It’s more fun for me to see how quickly I can beat it on imbecile setting than to risk losing (and thus be challenged to a better game) on a higher level.

In the fifth grade, my homeroom teacher, Mr. Packer, started giving us essay exams for social studies.  Everyone was terrified of these exams because we were used to multiple choice, objective exams, with maybe a short answer question once in awhile.

We got our first exam back, right before morning recess, no one looked happy, but I got an A.  Shayla, a tall, strong lass, asked me on the sidewalk on the way to the playground: “What did you get?”  When I told her, she looked offended, and starting venting to other people: “Jo-on here got an A!  Goody for Jo-on!”  It turned out I got the only A in the class.

Next, a chase ensued.  It started out as a joke: “Let’s get ‘im!”  Several people chased me around the playground.  But it turned into a Lord of the Flies moment: someone tackled me and I came up pushing and shoving and swung my jacket at someone else and the metal button whacked him in the nose and left a scrape.  The playground aides had to intervene.

The fifth grade established an oft-repeated pattern.  Lots of people despised me for doing well and took pleasure when I didn’t.  In the fifth grade, the playground social structure mattered to me way more than getting A’s.  I wanted to fit in with the dodgeball/football crowd.  Predictably, I got picked last.  One fall day, I actually caught a touchdown pass in the end zone (the fence along McDevitt Ave.).  The ball flew into my hands after a couple deflections, and there I was, winning the game.  However, a raging debate erupted because no one could remember which team I was on.  The bell rang, and everyone but me forgot about the game.

I went through school when “nerd” and “geek” did not have the counterculture hipness, the ironic distance that it does today.  (That was for skaters and stoners.)  I hated being the class nerd, but I was.  All the stigmata appeared: extreme gangliness, glasses, acne, no dating what so ever.  I was only a pocket protector away from being a total social outcast.  Some people called me “Gilbert,” after the Anthony Edwards character.  (By the way, can someone explain to me how the same actor can play Gilbert and Goose?)  I grew out of  my nerdiness a little bit, but had to find girlfriends at different schools or summer camp; everyone knew better in little old Vandercook Lake.

I do understand the human instinct for derision, the jealousy, the schadenfreude.  There are two groups of people I love to hate: dumb rich people and arrogant politicians.  I love this Republican primary season; I scan the news thinking “What dumb thing is Herman Cain going to say next?”  I had to turn off an episode of House Hunters because I resented the ditzy couple who were just suffering trying to pick out their $2 million vacation home.

So, gifted.  What. Does. That. Mean.  I have a gift.  I’m supposed to have gratitude.  A gift is something unearned, given.  A gift is something that’s supposed to be useful, that reflects the giver’s understanding of what the recipient wants or needs, what would give the person joy.  This gift, however, keeps giving me the finger.  I wake up most mornings thinking I have wasted so much time, that I have squandered my gift.  I could be writing great books, solving important problems, giving myself completely to my family and my job, and instead I poke around the internet, play with my iPod, take joy in the misfortune of the arrogant, think about great stories that I never write, totally avoid yardwork, and do a moderately good job teaching at a university few people have heard of.

My gift is incomplete. If my measurable smarts came with anywhere near equal motivation and focus it would be a gift indeed.  Instead I fit in the “gifted underachiever” category: lots of great ideas, lots of skills, lots of potential, little to show for it.  It is maddening.  I’m like a Steve Jobs who never got out of the garage.  My gift came without batteries, but it has a really cool picture on the box.

Please don’t hate me because I’m gifted.  It really is a burden.  I know, that’s like a movie star complaining that you just can’t find good sashimi in Milan any more, but we all have our battles.

Ph. Duh

I am the proud owner of two incomplete Ph.D.’s.  I did all the coursework for a Ph.D. in “critical studies in teaching English” at Michigan State and I am ABD (“all but dissertation”) in academic leadership in higher education at Western Michigan University.

There are three segments to most Ph.D. degrees: coursework, comprehensive exams, and the dissertation.  I’m pretty good with the coursework part.  I’m good at reading and discussing ideas in seminar (which comprised most of my coursework) and, although I always put the writing of the paper off until the last minute, I can crank out a pretty good seminar paper in a few days at the end.  They usually end up at 20 pages or so.

I find the reading and discussion that goes on at seminar invigorating.  The only trouble I have is keeping up with the reading.  Not that I can’t do the reading; I can read a novel in a day if I get hooked.  But if the reading gets too tedious, my interest wanes severely, and it is drudge work.  That, and writing the paper at the end.  I torture myself to get it done.

However, the comprehensive exams and dissertation involve more self-directed study, so, big surprise, I floundered.

In academia, the Ph.D. is a rite of passage and a sign of basic competence.  I started the Ph.D. so that I could get a tenure-track teaching job, and it worked: the fact that I had been accepted into the program at MSU was a positive factor during my interview process at Ferris State University.  (I have an MFA, which is supposed to be a terminal degree, although there are many Ph.D. programs in creative writing.)

I couldn’t do the comprehensive exam at MSU, though.  It involved a reading list of about 110 scholarly books and a long weekend of writing.  I couldn’t even get started on the reading list because it seemed impossible: I couldn’t even decide on a notetaking protocol.  So I quit,  just sort of faded from campus.

When I started my second Ph.D., some of the students in my group seemed like they belonged nowhere near graduate school.  They had trouble with basic concepts in the reading and even more trouble expressing themselves clearly.  They had simplistic models of how the world worked, and they often reacted to complexity with resistance and derision.  In fact, I could not believe I was in graduate school with professional adults who considered any slight reference to feminism as “male bashing.” It seemed like  Ph.D. lite, and I even considered the value of continuing past the first semester because the classes seemed so easy.

I continued for three main reasons:  to add “Ph.D.” after my name, to defer student loan payments, and to hopefully land an administrative job with a bigger salary to pay off said student loans.  If the administrative job didn’t turn out, I thought the Ph.D. would help my promotion process in my current job.

It turned out none of those things were enough to make me finish.  As part of some of the classes, we did extensive reflection and self evaluation.  I scored high on creativity and innovation and quite low on practical skills like “follow-through.”  That seemed kind of unbalanced for a career as an administrator.  I also realized my motivation for the whole degree was to run away from problems: defer student loan payments and stop having to grade papers.  And I got promoted without the Ph.D., because of my terminal degree.

In my studies I specialized in faculty development, which means helping faculty become better at what they do.  Being at a teaching institution (as opposed to a research institution), that meant teaching workshops.  I had done many workshops on teaching with technology, and enjoyed that.  However, when I talked about pedagogy I felt like an imposter.  In my teaching, I’ve always been good at coming up with ideas and structuring a course, and not so good at grading papers and getting photocopies done on time, etc. (ahem, follow-through).

Also, doing the workshops was not really the administrative part of faculty development.  The administrative part I experienced involved some significant battling of wills, underhandedness, selling principles short in the name of expediency, all things I despise.

So I got through the coursework and even the comprehensive exam and started on the path to dissertation, but with much lower motivation than when I started.  However, I had a golden opportunity: I had a dissertation topic  handed to me.  I got along with my dissertation chair very well.  She was becoming a strong player in the scholarly community.  She had national data from a grant project that needed additional analysis, and offered it to me as a dissertation topic.  This was timely and important work that would make my name in the field.  Her co-investigator on the research was a pioneer and luminary in the field.  Moreover, since I would be using existing data, I wouldn’t have to do any instrument design or data collection.

Despite some setbacks, then, I was on the fast track to becoming known in the field.  If I could just do the work.

I couldn’t.

I had some initial success at getting the proposal written, but then I got bogged down.  I couldn’t find the time to work on it.  Weeks turned into months.  A few months turned into a year and a half.  The longer I stalled, the harder it was to get anything productive done.  I thought about it all the time, but didn’t get any significant work done beyond the real progress I had made in the first two months.

I had plenty of support, so that was no excuse.  I took a dissertation seminar that my chair led.  When that finished, I sat in on another semester of seminar, which my chair graciously let me attend unofficially.

After awhile, my chair decided to move ahead with the data, and we looked to another topic.  But I saw the writing on the wall and officially abandoned my degree soon after that.

The irony is that some of the people I thought did not belong in graduate school at all had finished.  One woman who I thought would never have the capacity for a dissertation finished it quickly while working full time and while supporting her young son through cancer treatment.

I of course felt humbled and despondent about the experience.  My own idea of what a Ph.D. was changed.  It’s hard to admit to colleagues that I have abandoned at ABD stage and most likely will never finish.  Some of them see me differently now.

Getting a Ph.D. is not purely a measure of intelligence.  I know.  My ACT and GRE scores qualify me for membership in Mensa, which means I measure in the top 2% IQ in the nation.  Some of my fellow students who barely made the cutoff for GRE scores finished their Ph.D.’s in only three or four years.  But, I saw these students develop from workers into scholars, while I seemed to regress.

Indeed, I have felt like I’ve gotten dumber and dumber as the years have progressed.  I graduated from high school as a star student, ready to take on the world.  I performed poorly my first year of college.  I got through a BA and an MFA degree and somehow landed a teaching job at a state university, but have not stood out in any form.  I got award after award in high school, but nothing since.  My writing career has been met with rejection after rejection, which is normal, I’ve heard, but I don’t respond to it well.

Getting a Ph.D. requires intelligence and focus andpersistence, as does success in most fields.  I have no balance among those elements.  Once I latch on to something interesting, my hyperfocus kicks in, and I perform well.  Once something happens to diminish that interest, nothing, not even fear of shame or risk of losing my job or risk of going bankrupt from unpaid student loans, makes me finish it.

I’ve been reading the literature on gifted adults recently and think I fit in that category.  There are the gifted super achievers, who have their own issues, but I fit in the gifted underachiever category.  I had every predictor of success in high school, and have struggled to make my modest career.  My recent experience with cognitive testing has reminded me of the idea I had of myself one time: that I had strong potential and that I would do something important with my life.  My idea of “important” has changed, though.  I do important work in ways that differ from what I once imagined: help out struggling students, give advice to friends, be a good father and husband.

Despite all that I have, though, I have trouble feeling fulfilled, at least professionally.  Writing makes me feel fulfilled in that way.  Being a successful, full-time writer has been the dream I come back to consistently.  It’s not so much seeing my work in print, as the feedback I get.  I had a poem published in a broadside around Big Rapids by The Michigan Poet.  For a few weeks, I had all sorts of people say “Hey, I saw your poem at Pepper’s.  Neat!”  That, to me, is fulfilling.

So is blogging.  The handful of comments and likes have been helpful.  So please, comment.  My vanity will be restored for another day if you do . . .