Your IQ doesn’t mean jack shit

Schools should give up on standard measures of intelligence.

Photo by Hernan Sanchez on Unsplash

The girl’s dad told me I was a failure as a teacher. He demanded to know my IQ. When I refused, he threatened to have me fired. Good thing we were on the phone. He sounded kind of stabby.

The problem? His daughter had earned a B on a paper. That had never happened to him before. Emphasis on him.

Throughout grad school, I survived the lean summer months by working for gifted education programs. Like the ones run by Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Northwestern. Which one? That’s classified. I’m not trying to get sued here. Besides, they’re all the same.

Almost every gifted education program exists for the same reasons. To recruit students for their host university. To educate. And to make money while doing it. The parents believe sending their kids to us every summer increases their chances of acceptance at top schools. Not always Ivy League, but one tier above public land grants. Maybe this strategy works for some. For others, I’m sure summer programs for smart kids have the usual benefit of making them even smarter. But a handful of parents just don’t understand.

Every summer, some of them always asked me the same questions. “Are you a Harvard professor?” No.

“Did you at least study at Harvard?”

No, I didn’t.

But I’ve seen Harvard. With my own eyes. Does that count?

Most of these parents make more money than a professor like me ever will. Drop-off day is a parade of Bentleys. One time, a dad tried to tip me $50 for helping him lift his kid’s luggage out of the trunk.

What I’m trying to say is there’s a certain degree of privilege.

You don’t want to mess with these parents. They’re about to leave their offspring in the hands of lesser beings for a month. They’ve been known to make adult staff members cry in public.

Gifted education is a little bit of a hoax. The average gifted kid population is almost exclusively white, upper-middle class. Some programs have made an effort to increase their diversity. But not much.

Just enough to look good.

In theory, differentiated instruction makes a lot of sense. We know that people have a range of talents, abilities, and preferred methods of instruction. Some people learn visually, others aurally, and others by doing. Some people are great at math, but suck at writing. Others, vice versa.

But that’s not how gifted education works in practice. Or at least, that’s not what a lot of parents hear. When advocates of gifted instruction say, “Everyone is gifted at something,” some parents hear “My kid’s more special than yours.” And these parents have lots of money.

So gifted education programs wind up catering to them. Probably more than they should. And that’s how they’ve become potentially dangerous. They take rich kids from good homes and tell them they’re smart because they’re special, and that their intelligence has no environmental factors.

They’re like intellectual X-Men.

That’s how many kids enter our program — with egos ready to pop. When they do, it’s ugly. They cry. The parents lash out at the teachers, the curriculum, and sometimes their own kids.

We’ve called DSS on a few who berated their own children long distance. One mom called her daughter “worthless,” and implied that she might not even come to pick her up at the end of the summer.

Nobody has the right to judge another person’s intelligence. I’ve always paid more attention to what people do. Not the numbers they throw at me. And yet gifted programs for kids base almost everything on one measure. This number defines them until the age of 18 or 19.

And then suddenly, the number that meant everything now means nothing. That’s a big shock to the system.

Your score on a test doesn’t mean much if you’re not prepared for a shit world. Luckily, I had advanced training. Some of my friends, though… I remember attending graduation parties where parents gave speeches that sounded like encomiums of Helen. They all said the same thing about their kid — so smart, so talented, so beautiful.

My dad, on the other hand, said this: “Don’t forget to have your oil changed every three thousand miles. I mean it, every three thousand.”

And I’ve turned out well as a result.

That said, I was technically classified as “gifted.” My parents just didn’t care that much. Maybe that’s because the gifted program at my school excluded me for about a decade.

As early as first grade, the smart kids would leave for half a day. At 2 pm, they’d come back bragging about all the cool shit they’d done. Just to remind the rest of us how much it sucked to be dumb. That continued all through elementary. While we filled out worksheets and took tests, they made light bulbs and telephones.

The gifted program had no use for adolescent me. Why? In Kindergarten, I failed an intelligence test. I did poorly on another one in first grade. That’s when administrators sat my parents down for a serious talk.

My teacher attended. She predicted that I might still succeed in life. “The world will always need waitresses and flight attendants.”

This was the 80s. You could get away with a lot back then.

The meeting revealed a few problems at home. For example, my mom found out that I needed to be doing stuff other than sitting in front of the TV and watching her smoke cigarettes. Other kids were starting to learn how to read, listening to classical music, and playing with science kits.


So my teachers dismissed me as “dumb” or “average at best,” until 8th grade. What happened? At some point, I got tired of how people treated me. Including my parents. And I decided to give up on impressing them. That year, the school tested everyone’s intelligence one last time. I stopped freaking out over bubble sheets and just gave the first answer that bloomed in my head. No second-guessing. No cloud of erasure marks.

My strategy worked. After the holidays, I joined the ranks of the gifted. New classes. Different teachers. Encouragement. Positive reinforcement. Compliments. No more dirty looks from authority figures. The career counselor stopped laughing at me when I talked about becoming a novelist. My life changed. For a little while.

You’d think all that would make me an advocate of gifted programs. Not quite. Gifted programs elevate a few, but they oppress the rest. They taught us to look down on our “less gifted” peers. I even stopped socializing with non-gifted people. As if their average intelligence could infect me. My old friends passed me in the halls. I ignored them.

Gifted programs pump some kids so full of self grandeur that they never take any chances. The smartest guy from my high school is 33 now. He’s never had a job. Or a girlfriend. He lives with his parents. Claims to do freelance coding for major companies. But we’ve never seen his work. He mainly posts reviews of obscure science fiction movies on Rotten Tomatoes.

But this guy remains judgmental and condescending. I’ve tried to catch up with him a few times. He never stops talking about how many pages he can read an hour, how he doesn’t care about material success, how he’s creating his own religion for a massive novel he’ll write some day.

That kind of attitude followed me into college, when I was accepted into the honors program. But halfway through, something changed. I started to notice how the other honors brats acted. They humble-bragged all the time. Compared ACT scores. Listed the number of books they’d read over the summer. They walked around campus with resting smug face.

Other people couldn’t stand them.

More importantly, I met talented people who weren’t in the honors program. At first, it shocked me. Then I got used to it. These were people whose schools never had gifted programs. They didn’t come from high-income households. But they had skills that I didn’t. They taught me how to bike, climb, and kayak. For the first time, I also started interacting with adults — returning students in their late 20s, climbers and hikers in their 30s and 40s. None of these people bragged about their IQ. The had a huge amount of life experience. Some of them had served in the army. They taught me how to replace car batteries and fix leaks in my dorm.

My sophomore year, I lived with a group of squatters in the woods for a few weeks. They’d built log cabins from scratch and grew their own food. None of them had even heard of “gifted programs.” But one of them had been shot in the leg by a cop during a riot, and sutured his own wound.

So I learned almost more from these people as I did from my classes.

By 22, I’d earned a B.A., and the honors program was supposed to give me a special diploma. The idea thrilled me. A piece of paper, with a shiny seal that made my superior intelligence official. I’d worked hard. Taken all the honors classes. I’d even written and defended a thesis.

But I never got my piece of paper. My undergrad thesis director forgot to sign my defense sheet before traveling abroad. The honors college didn’t care. They denied my application for graduation.

So Jessica did all that hard work. And wound up with a regular B.A., just like everyone else.

No special seal. Just a normal diploma. In fact, I can’t even find my B.A. diploma now. It’s probably in a box in my parents’ attic.

For years, bitterness steeped my soul. I blamed the lack of my honors diploma for lots of setbacks. It took a long time for me to uncover the truth — I was pissed off because other people had a special sheet of paper as proof of their superior intelligence. But not me.

There’s certain times in my life I’d really like to whip out a sheet of paper to prove I’m smart. Interviews. Meetings. Conferences with the dickhead, judgmental parents of genius kids. Especially those.

But I don’t. So I have to continually prove my intelligence every day. Through my actions. Through my decisions. Through my judgment.

Gifted children can always benefit from special instruction. But you know what they need even more? A lesson in humility. It does wonders. When your ass is constantly kissed, you get lazy. You rely on numbers like your IQ or your ACT to impress people. That causes problems later in life. It doesn’t matter how gifted you are. At some point, you’ll be expected to demonstrate your intelligence without a scantron.