Take This, You Who are Young!

It had been a rough morning. I climbed to the top of the stairs and wondered what I had come to get. I stood at the gas pump trying to remember my zip code. All that came to mind was the passcode to my dad’s MyChart, the phone number of my long-dead grandparents, and my social security number, which I hadn’t been able to remember when I renewed my passport. In the grocery store someone gave me a hug, and I hugged back thinking, who is this person?

All this, and then I had the audacity to spend the afternoon teaching a college class where the topic was intelligence.

“I’m past my peak,” I said to them. “You don’t want me on your team in an escape room, and if you and I competed to solve a Rubik’s Cube, you’d win, for sure.”

And I told them about the zip code problem at the gas pump and the people whose names I keep forgetting, even people I’ve known well.

“I’ll probably forget your names,” I told them.

What I didn’t tell them, was that I didn’t know most of their names. No longer able to memorize even the names of students right in front of me, I’d been faking my way through the term.  

They sat there in their glorious youth—skin without wrinkles, muscles taut, and hair elegant or wildly sloppy, according to their tastes—and regarded me with a mixture of doubt and pity.

“You’re at your peak with fluid intelligence,” I said. “You’re quick to solve puzzles and remember names and analyze new information and adapt to your environment.”

I let this penetrate into their youthful brains.

“You may be fast,” I continued, “But I’m rich.”

And I let that sink in.

“I’ve got crystalized intelligence.”

I explained that what I’ve learned from decades of living and from books I’ve read and from people I’ve met and places I’ve been—all this is stored in my brain. I’ve thought about what I’ve learned. And in my brain, I’ve bumped ideas up against each other to form new ideas. And from this vast store, I can pull what I need.

They didn’t know how I was pulling from this store to teach them, that though I didn’t know their names, I knew who they were. After teaching thousands of students, I could pick up on the nuances necessary to teach each of them well. From the first day, I’d known that one student would need an off-hand, from-the-side approach if I were to connect with him, that another would welcome a direct challenge, and that another needed to be buoyed up with assurance. I understood more about some of these students than they understood about themselves.

 “In new situations,” I told them, wrapping up class, “I may be slow on the uptake. But when I get there, watch out.”

And their eyes no longer held pity.

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