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By Michael Milburn


The Montréal Review, September 2011


"Rush hour on Hampstead Heath" by Stuart Luke Gatherer
Oil on Canvas
(36 x 54 in)


Although I recognized the concept of intelligence from an early age, it wasn't until high school that I realized that being smart meant more than getting good grades, and that different people could be smart in different ways. Psychologists such as Daniel Goleman and Howard Gardner have offered plausible theories on this topic, but nothing has shaped my definition of intelligence as much as my encounters with people whom I or others consider smart-either because they perform well at academic tasks or because they exhibit wisdom and psychological acuity.

In my junior year at St. Paul's School, a selective prep school with many academically gifted students, our English teacher asked us to name our smartest classmate. Of the students who regularly earned "A"s, most were pasty, pimpled nerds who spent every night studying. Only one received impeccable grades without seeming to work harder than the rest of us. A long-haired varsity soccer player, he spent his Saturday nights smoking dope in a patch of woods off-campus. We identified him as our smartest because of his grades, but also because he struck us as more nonchalant about his studies than any of his fellow high achievers.

That was the first time that I connected being smart with having the respect of one's peers, and understood that qualities other than pure aptitude might contribute to one's impression of intelligence. My friends and I saw no relation between this boy's ability to ace tests and his inspired play on the soccer field or the insights he offered while stoned; we just admired him for succeeding without trying too hard, and for sharing some of our own qualities. He gave the jocks and slackers among us hope that we too might one day get in touch with our inner class brain.

In my previous school most of the "A" ­ students had been girls. With their immaculate homeworks and unwavering attention during class, they struck me as grade machines, not role models. At St. Paul's I not only encountered unabashedly smart boys, but a climate of respect for academics. My friends still viewed schoolwork as a necessary evil, boasting about how quickly they had written a paper, how royally they were going to get screwed on a test, or how drunk they had been while reading The Great Gatsby the night before. Yet in a school as competitive as ours, with college applications looming, we all aspired to good grades, even those who couldn't (or couldn't be bothered to) achieve them. We recognized apathy as a sign of immaturity, and knew that if we were ever to make something of ourselves or become interesting people, if only to girls, then those processes would start in the classroom.

We couldn't emulate the soccer player, who earned "A"s in spite of his outward apathy, so another student served as our model of an attractive intellectual. Nicknamed "The Professor," he studied a moderate amount, but busied himself with extracurricular activities, school politics, intellectual tête-à-têtes with teachers, and an exotic European girlfriend. He also radiated smartness by the venerable method of carrying impressive looking books in public. Convinced of his intelligence, and because he reminded us of our teachers, we elected him class president. (The soccer player was too hedonistic and most of the nerds were too nerdy to be considered, and the school was just implementing co-education, so the few girls did not yet play a significant role in the class).

The Professor's image impressed us, but his grades won him the office. The extent to which we equated good grades with intelligence--and with character, judgment and leadership--is evident in the fact that no non-straight A student merited a nomination, regardless of what qualifications such a candidate might have had for leading the school. When it came to using grades to measure lack of intelligence, however, our standards relaxed. In choosing my friends I simply gravitated toward people with quick and surprising senses of humor. I figured that my own B's and C's made me medium smart, but that they misrepresented my abilities slightly; few courses other than English and creative writing electives inspired me to work hard, and most teachers routinely lowered my grade because of my quietness in class.

My estimate of my intelligence increased when I spent the fall term of my senior year in Paris. Finding myself alone in the study-abroad office, I glanced through my application folder for my letters of recommendation for the college-level program. I remembered jokingly asking my French teacher to say something nice about me to offset my unimpressive grades in his class. Two phrases from his letter surprised me--"very bright" and "excessively polite." I had never thought of myself in either of those terms, though I did tend to defer to adults with authority. But "very bright"? How did the man who had given me "B-" in French for two consecutive years come to that conclusion? I swelled with pride to be considered bright--no one had ever called me that before--and was fascinated by the idea that my grades might conceal an above average intelligence. I even felt a surge of respect for my teacher's astuteness in seeing beyond my mediocre tests and translations.

The arrival of college application forms that fall brought me back to reality. Ivy League colleges used grades and test scores as their primary indicators of intelligence and thus desirability. St. Paul's usually sent a dozen graduates to Harvard each year, and slightly smaller contingents to Yale and Princeton. The only shoo-ins for these slots were kids with stellar grades. Even those students with average grades supplemented by a team captaincy, class office, or extensive resume of extra-curricular activities spent the winter fretting about their futures. My middling grades, middling SAT scores, lacrosse team captaincy, and substantial family legacy combined to secure me a spot on Harvard's wait list.

That spring the school's college admissions advisor, the same English teacher who had asked us to name our smartest classmate, called me into his office to say that he was working hard to convince Harvard to admit me. Believing that the university had assigned me to the wait list as a way of discharging its obligation to my family legacy, I doubted that a place would open. I couldn't imagine what evidence of my Harvard-worthiness this man was offering in his phone calls to the admissions office, but he seemed to believe that neither my grades nor my test scores reflected my potential. At graduation I won a senior writing prize and he phoned Harvard immediately to report the news. A few days later I was admitted.

Despite my late acceptance, I never suffered from the classic Harvard complex--the fear that one was taken by mistake and that everyone else is much smarter. I met enough freshmen who had secured admission through family connections to know that Harvard was no pure meritocracy. I also arrived in an era when the athletic department was recruiting players in my sports, hockey and lacrosse. My hockey teammates from Canada and Boston, and lacrosse prodigies from Long Island and Baltimore convinced me that if one measured intelligence by articulateness and intellectual curiosity, then I was not the dumbest person at Harvard by a long shot.

But I also did not delude myself that my admission to Harvard certified my intelligence; my high school grades may have misrepresented my ability, but not by that much. I could not compete with classmates who effortlessly mastered concepts and facts, or wrote coherent essays in a single draft. St. Paul's attracted high caliber students, but Harvard introduced me to a whole new level of smartness. In the cafeteria, the stairwells of the freshman dormitories, the aisles of Harvard Square stores, and at week-end keg parties I encountered people who were not only quicker and more erudite than many of my high school classmates, but smart in more varied ways.

Harvard provided me with the ideal laboratory in which to begin my lifelong study of intelligence. Today, this study continues in the writing course that I teach at Yale. As an undergraduate, I enjoyed trying to identify my classmates' fortes, just as today I wonder who among my Yale students is the science whiz, the master debater, the flawless SAT performer. Sometimes the facility of these eighteen-year-olds intimidates me, and even they acknowledge feeling self-conscious about their reputation as the best and brightest of their generation. Last term, one of my freshmen wrote an essay about the stress of composing his high school valedictorian speech. He described having been groomed for the performance by his parents and teachers since seventh grade. When he submitted the essay for discussion, more than half his classmates sheepishly disclosed that they too had served as valedictorians the previous spring.

Like me, my college roommate Warren Perkins gained admission to Harvard with a boost from family connections. The males in Warren's family were all alumni and he had as little choice in where to attend college as I did. Also like me, he applied with mediocre grades. His main appeal to the admissions committee besides his legacy was his rowing skill, no small credential at Harvard. Rejected on his first try, Warren took a year off and reapplied successfully. Upon hearing his story, my first instinct was not to look too hard for evidence of intelligence; he reminded me too much of myself. During my three years with Warren, however, I began to discount further the value of grades in determining smartness. Warren, who went on to graduate school and a career as a geologist, could certainly handle the work at Harvard. In fact, if he and our other roommate Tim had not tutored me through my required science courses, I would still lack my diploma.

The quality of Warren's that impressed me, though, was one that I had never associated with intelligence and came to value more than that coveted degree. Warren was the kindest and friendliest of people. A gentle giant who made no secret of his love for fun and was always lusting happily after some female classmate, Warren good-naturedly put up with Tim's and my kidding about his frat-boy simplicity. Yet he was also remarkably astute. He regularly accused Tim and me of prizing his company more for entertainment than for intellectual stimulation. He hinted that he wanted to outgrow his fun-loving demeanor, which he recognized as only one facet of his character. I doubted that Warren could harbor such insights without a subtle intelligence. He often lamented his ignorance, but when he stood in our living room and doused Tim's and my teasing with an accurate characterization of our friendship, I knew that he was not only smart, but worthy of my respect in a way that many of my other classmates were not.

Tim knew this too because he was quicker than either of us, combining perceptiveness with academic skill. He hardly studied, but could draft a last-minute essay that would receive glowing comments from his professor. Tim treated his intelligence like a generous gift for which he had no particular use. He had many interests-sailing, skiing, listening to music-but no ambition other than to find a job that left him enough free time to pursue them. Unlike our driven classmates, he was happy simply to get by, and used his intelligence for survival and amusement rather than advancement. He admired Kevin Bacon's character Fenwick in the movie Diner, the brightest and laziest member of his high school group. In one scene, Fenwick watches TV, alone in his living room, firing correct answers to every question on the College Bowl quiz show.

More than anyone, Tim could make me feel intellectually slow. He was so quick to make connections, not just in academics, but in discussions of music or social life, and he had little patience with people who could not keep up with him. I'm attentive to nuances of behavior or language, but plodding at any practical task and at articulating my thoughts out loud. Tim couldn't get over my denseness when he helped me with science, yet he never seemed to regard me as dumb. Rather, he appreciated me as I did Warren, for my intuition, a quality that received less respect at Harvard than academic skill, but one that I found more interesting.

I began to identify different types of intuitive intelligence. For example, my girlfriend made banal observations and often spoke as if quoting from a self-help book, yet her musical talent made me hesitate to call her dumb. Through her singing she conveyed insights more profound than many I had heard in Harvard lecture halls. These impressed me precisely because they did not arise from a gift for memorizing or computing. Lacking this gift, I was relieved to exclude it from my evolving definition of intelligence.

Growing up, I had always been led to believe that people were bright solely on the grounds that they attended prestigious schools, especially if they had been admitted without a legacy or other advantage. My parents had instilled in me early on that Harvard meant smart while less selective schools meant the opposite, and I have never completely shaken off my belief in this fallacy. Ironically, it led me to see my own last-minute admission less as proof of my brainpower than as a reprieve; at least I wouldn't have Harvard snobs doubting my intellect for the rest of my life.

I drifted through my undergraduate years on a stream of Cs and Bs, aloof from the social and political life of the university. I was struggling with depression at the time, and knew that my main achievement at college would be surviving it. Yet for all the lectures I daydreamed through or extra-curricular groups I declined to join, my fellow students provided me with ample material for study. I have often regretted my squandered opportunities at Harvard, but in some ways my improvised education was as grounded in watching, listening, and thinking as any formal lessons taking place around me in classrooms.

Most of my peers struck me as school-smart, adept at absorbing and synthesizing information. A second group exhibited mental quickness, but little breadth or passion; its members shone in tasks and later jobs that demanded acuity. Then came the artists, whose company I aspired to on the basis of several "A"s I had received in writing courses. But any self-confidence I derived from these grades evaporated whenever I shared a meal with a hyper-articulate government major or was left sputtering by Tim's cleverness. Such trademark Harvard qualities usually left me feeling mauled rather than edified. I struggled to recall facts from my reading and often became tongue-tied in conversation. Even today when someone steamrolls me with eloquent or well-documented arguments, I shut down, cursing my brain for keeping me from keeping up.

In response to a question about George W. Bush's intelligence, Al Gore responded "I don't think that he's weak intellectually. I think that he is incurious." I found curiosity to be a scarce commodity at Harvard. I don't mean hunger for information; most students loved knowledge and figuring things out, from a vacuum cleaner's workings to the forces that led countries to revolution. I mean curiosity about people, and how one could benefit from others' intelligence rather than simply demonstrate one's own. It was one thing for an economics major to expound on the causes of poverty, but another for him to supplement his knowledge with a wide range of experiences and perspectives.

My curiosity only lagged in my courses. I did as little schoolwork as possible and rarely sought out professors. In retrospect, however, I see my reserve as a matter of timing rather than stupidity. In The Education of Henry Adams, Adams recalls that his years at Harvard left his mind "open, free from bias, ignorant of facts, but docile. The graduate...knew little, but his mind remained supple, ready to receive knowledge." My intellectual curiosity, which had atrophied under the weight of my depression, blossomed five years after college when I entered graduate school. My intelligence hadn't increased during my time out of school; rather, the freedom to write and read according to my whim rather than a syllabus had allowed me to inhabit it more comfortably. I had gained a clearer sense of my strengths as a thinker and writer. Whereas in college I had regurgitated information, desperate to give professors what they wanted, in graduate school I saw that an essay's persuasiveness depended upon style, not quantity of information. Personality trumped erudition once again.

I first became aware of intelligence as a child hearing the term applied to my father. People praised his brilliance so often that I measured everyone else's against it, including my own. When I think of my father now, I don't remember specific smart things he said or did so much as his ability to look smart while making me look stupid. He never admitted an error, even if confronted with incontrovertible evidence, in which case he would subtly alter the argument in his favor. A dispute over Napoleon's military career, for example, might dissolve into a quibble over the locations of individual battles. Maps would be brought out, the original grounds for the argument forgotten, and I'd be left with my finger on a tiny French town and my father saying "I rest my case" as he left the room. This tactic infuriated me, but also made me adore the art of debate. To this day I cannot bear for an argument to end quickly, even with my opponent's concession; if faced with this prospect I'll do my own quibbling or even start to disagree with myself.

My father's ploys had little to do with smartness. Even factoring in his quickness and erudition, which made him a good lawyer, I still see him as deficient in intelligence. He was a cruel, belittling man, devastating to his family's self-esteem. Even in dispensing advice, which he excelled at in both his professional and personal life, he tried to cultivate an aura of wisdom--keeping his reasoning mysterious, dismissing others' contributions. Since his death I have come to view his brand of inhumane intelligence as an oxymoron and him as tragically dense. He couldn't see how he hurt those who would have loved him whether he was brilliant or not.

His behavior taught me never to use my intelligence as a tool for humiliation. I wanted my son Dev to discover his aptitude through satisfaction rather than embarrassment and disappointment. Although his academic struggles in high school left Dev questioning his competence, I never put much stock in his middling grades; a film student at New York University, he strikes me as no less observant and reflective than many of my Yale students. Given a timed test, he'll struggle to finish or will lose his concentration midway through, but if I ask him to critique a screenplay or a movie director's choices he'll give a thoughtful, perceptive response.

At the private middle school where I teach ninth grade English, many students move on to elite prep schools after eighth grade; anyone rejected by these remains for an extra year. Each spring, some of my colleagues survey the list of returning ninth graders and lament the loss of their star pupils. Not me. Despite their error-free writing and perfect recall, those high achievers often lack imagination. As a result of their own (or their parents') perfectionism, they also avoid risk and deal poorly with failure. In contrast, some of the returning ninth graders cheerfully introduce themselves to me in September as "the rejects." Their personalities infuse their schoolwork and their talents emerge in many areas, not just on tests. Some blossom in the absence of their school-savvy peers, as if relieved to escape the shadow of those automatons earning A's on test after test, essay after essay.

On a recent evening, I stood before my students' well-dressed parents to describe my curriculum. Before I could begin, a mother remarked approvingly, "I hear you went to Harvard," as if this told her everything she needed to know about my intellectual and social fitness for teaching her son. I knew that I was a worthy mentor and role model for this boy, but not for the reasons she thought. The most valuable lesson Harvard had taught me was how to tell the difference between academic ability and intelligence, a distinction that I try to convey to my students. I can't prevent that mother from inflicting her assumptions upon her son, but I can teach him not to inflict them upon himself.




There's at least one at every party, in every classroom, commanding attention, enlivening conversation. And invariably, off to the side or in the back row, there's another watching and listening, as withdrawn as the first is outgoing...


Michael Milburn's book of essays, Odd Man In, won the First Series Award for Creative Nonfiction and was published by MidList Press in 2005.  His second book of poems, Drive By Heart, was published by Word Press in 2009.  A new book of poems, Carpe Something, is forthcoming from Word Press in 2012. You can find more of his work at michael-milburn.com


"Odd Man In: And Other Essays"

"Not many poets coach lacrosse teams. But it is the improbable connections in his life that make Milburn such a refreshingly unpredictable essayist. Whether pondering the affinity between uncoached athletic talent and untutored poetic genius or comparing his own social status as an oft-stereotyped WASP to that of an oft-discriminated-against African American, Milburn cuts through conventional wisdom to reach fresh insights... An authentic and engaging voice."

-- Bryce Christensen


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