Monday, December 11, 2000

Get smart

The other day in the paper, I saw an ad for one of those after-school tutoring places that’s guaranteed to raise your kids’ grades and diminish your savings account. In big letters, it said something like, “When smart kids can’t learn.” And it made me wonder: Is everybody smart now? Is no kid allowed to be average, or less than? Are we all smart but for various reasons just can’t get with that smartness? The thinking seems to be, if a kid’s getting a C, it’s not because he’s a C student, it’s because he’s an A student with issues.

And that’s fine, I guess. Good for the self esteem--of the parent, if not of the kid. But sometimes, I feel like I’m living in a giant Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. And since my daughter clearly isn’t, where does that put us?

Smartness seems to be the gold standard of international adoption. How many e-mails have I read on Russian parenting lists that start with, “She’s really smart, but...” and go on to list any number of dire problems. Maybe they’re RAD, maybe they’re OCD, maybe they’re sensory-integration impaired, maybe they have a host of ills that post-institutionalized kids are heir to, but at least they’re smart. One mother recently lamented that they could accept all the other problems her child brought, but now it appeared that he was just not intelligent, and she didn’t know if she could deal with that.

That sort of thinking rankles me, but in truth I have been known to hold out my own son’s smartness as a point of honor, though his behavior and developmental delays put his smarts in a pretty big shadow. Until he can control his impulses, his intelligence is kind of a moot point. He can’t be in a regular classroom, he can’t do regular work, he can’t be with kids his own age, he can’t be with mainstream kids at all in any productive way. But hey--at least he’s smart.

And then there’s my sweet, friendly, pretty daughter, who can be competent and who can acquire skills and sometimes retain facts, but who is hardly on her way to being a leading intellectual light. She can appear smart; the teacher says she’s a whiz with math facts, and her classmates probably notice that she always calls out the right answer more than they notice the really basic mistakes she makes on tests. She is certainly hampered by learning disabilities--and yes, we have her at one of those tutoring factories--but I wouldn’t characterize her as a smart kid who can’t learn; I’d characterize her as a hardworking kid who’s eager to please and is doing the best she can with the brain she’s got. And what’s so bad about that?

We all like to believe that smartness is what counts, that brains will get you ahead, and that therefore lack of smartness--or at least the appearance of smartness--will be an insurmountable hurdle. But you don’t have to look too far to see that there are many successful people for whom “smart” would not be the first or second or fifthieth thing you’d say about them (insert your own George W. Bush joke here). And there are undeniably smart people whose smartness tends to work against them (okay, insert your own Al Gore joke here).

Can’t we restore some glory to being average? Are we so snobbish that we can’t acknowledge and appreciate averageness--in our children, or in ourselves? Being average may not be the most glamorous of jobs, but somebody’s got to do it. Maybe the reason those smart kids can’t learn is that they’re just not that smart. And as my daughter the philosopher would say, “It’s not the end of the world.”

Maybe she’s smarter than I thought.

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