Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Smart-Aleck's Tale

What does it say about me that among my favorite songs are three which express the point of view of someone who offers his love to someone smarter, despite his own lack of book-smarts? And I identify with him, not the person he's offering his love to.

I've been having some online conversations that have left me feeling a bit uneasy, with people I know from high school. As I've said before, I was an isolate in those days, partly because I was so closeted, but also because I seemed to have so little in common with my peers. Playing guitar was the first real connection I was able to make with them. I was also an intellectual who did well in school, and while I didn't look down on others, I didn't know what to talk to them about. This was partly temperamental on my part; the tendency to be a loner seems to run on my father's side of the family. It's more than shyness, but shyness is certainly part of it. Since I got onto Facebook and some of my old schoolmates contacted me, I've learned that there were more readers and thinkers (and even some atheists) in my small town than I realized.

But what about everyone else? A few of my classmates have told me that they thought I believed I was better than others, too good to be friends with them because I was smart. This is difficult to answer, because I didn't think I was better than they were, and I don't feel I'm that smart. I wrote "feel" there rather than "think" or "believe," because I know objectively that I am smart, probably smarter than most people, but most of the time I'm more conscious of what I don't know than what I do know. If anything, in high school I felt inferior to most people: fearful of what they'd think if they knew I was homosexual; ashamed of my family for various private reasons I'm not going to write about but suffice it to say I thought we were abnormal; ashamed of my own shyness and penchant for solitude. Books and music were a refuge for me, as they are for many awkward adolescents. It wasn't my own thoughts I communed with, but the thoughts of other people encountered in the books I read.

It was this shyness and insecurity that other people misinterpreted as arrogance. They still do sometimes, so when I have the chance, when someone remarks on someone else's perceived arrogance, I suggest that maybe that other person is shy and insecure instead. I suspect that many people like accusing others of arrogance, no doubt because of their own insecurities, which probably come from being taught by various adults to think of themselves as stupid. Among the writers I learned from in those days were Jonathan Kozol and John Holt, who taught me what a lot of other kids went through while I was coasting through school. If I had ever thought of my schoolmates as dumb, I got over that decisively. But by then I was out of school, and far from my home town.

It's also true that in my teens I exposed myself to a lot of writing, especially in science fiction, which espoused technocratic elitism, the idea that the more intelligent few should rule the ignorant many. This flattered my alienated adolescent self, of course, and it took me quite a while to learn better and get over it.

Two things have been helpful to me in figuring out where I stand. Several people have told me that I'm good at explaining things, clearly and without condescending to them. This is probably why so many people have used me as a resource over the years, a walking talking encyclopedia that shares what it knows but doesn't pretend to know what it doesn't. One of my high school classmates told me that I helped him with algebra, so this willingness to share knowledge goes back at least that far. But there are subjects that can't be covered in five or ten minutes; some of it involves worldview, and that's harder to get across. For example, you can talk about specific cases of American foreign policy (Vietnam, the Iraq War, Central America, and so on), but a lot of people reflexively resist the idea that the United States has ever done anything really, seriously, wrong. It's too disturbing, so they balk. This includes not just people with high-school educations, of course, but people with college degrees.

The other thing, probably more important, was learning to listen. In the Seventies I joined a local crisis telephone line and was trained in what they called "listening skills." It really just codified and highlighted things I already knew; I'd noticed almost as soon as I arrived in Bloomington that a surprising number of people found me easy to talk to about their lives. Reading is a kind of listening, after all, and books for me have always been a way to learn about the lives of people who were different from me.

[This post has been in my drafts folder for a year or more; time to get it out of there while I work on something else.]