When Smart People Do Stupid Things

One of my delights as a retired teacher is meeting students by chance at the gas pump or the library or the grocery store. I was at Kroger one day, buying food for a birthday party for my grandson. Onto the checkout counter, I piled potato chips, fresh vegetables, hamburger, and ice cream. Last of all, I placed the decorated birthday cake I had ordered. Then I looked up and saw—let’s call him John. We were both pleasantly surprised.

He was working for college money, he told me. And hoping for scholarships. He’d probably get them, I thought. John’s score on the IQ test I had given him back in middle school was one of the highest I’d ever seen. I was quite certain he’d do well on his college entrance exams.

As John scanned my groceries, he told me about his classmates—which colleges they planned to attend and what majors they were considering. He rang up my total and started bagging groceries. And just as he was telling me he couldn’t decide between being a statistician or philosopher, he picked up my grandson’s birthday cake.

“What I’d really like, Mrs. Swartz,” he said, as he upended the cake into the cart, “is to combine the two. Statistics hasn’t received enough philosophical attention.”

The moment seemed too important, and I let the cake slide down on itself. I’d try to fix it later.

On the way home, the cake now right-side-up in the back seat of my car, I thought about a theorist named Sternberg, who describes what had just happened at Kroger. Sternberg outlines three components of intelligences and proposes that successful living involves all three.

Analytical, Practical, Creative

As a fifth grader when John entered the gifted program, he was already strong in analyzing and creating. And his parents and teachers had been working hard to help him develop the practical part of intelligence—to remember his glasses, to keep his notebook organized, and to turn in his homework. No one doubted that John would excel in the abstract parts of intelligence, but, according to Sternberg, John also needed to thrive in the real world.

It’s good for John to be checking out groceries, I thought.  He’ll do more than earn some college money. The next time he upends a birthday cake, someone will be sure to give him an education.


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