I am a genius.
When I was a child, I was called “gifted.” My IQ was abnormally high, and I had the ability to master mathematical skills and language arts that exceeded most of my peers. I still do. Saying it sounds arrogant, sounds like I’m just a smug bastard, but it is simply true. I am smarter than about 98% of the people I meet on any given day. About one percent of those will be as smart as I am. The last percent are those that have me beat.
Those are rough figures.
I say that not to belittle you, the reader. Chances are, I’m smarter than you, just playing the odds. And the very fact that I’ve said that has you a little miffed, because how dare I? I don’t mean it to be insulting. But there’s no way of saying it that makes it not insulting. So there it is.
So, here’s what my childhood was like: I was raised in a small farming community. It’s got exactly one school district, and the children you enroll into kindergarten with are, more or less, the children you graduate high school with.
When I was first placed into kindergarten, I was an unruly child. I don’t remember it vividly, save for one particular incident in which the teacher asked me to put down my copy of Madeleine L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time so that I could name a word that started with the letter “C.” Did she not understand I was trying to figure out how a tesseract worked? I mean, I’m reading a novel here. I probably know three words that start with “C,” right? There are at least that many on this page. My teacher is an idiot for issuing me such a ridiculous question. I threw my shoe at her to punish her for her stupidity and went on reading.
This didn’t end well for me.
The school was going to hold me back for a year. Clearly I wasn’t prepared to be a kindergartener. Try again next year. But my mother, who was at the time a teacher, and several of her friends who had interacted with me off-hours, instead had me tested. This test proved, definitively, that I was a genius. The school then reversed its position.
Instead of holding me back, Jennings Elementary school took the unprecedented step of moving me from kindergarten into first grade in the middle of the school year. Why they did this was never explained to the children around me, or really to me. I was just a first grader, all of a sudden. Of course, first grade was still well underneath me, but at least there was busywork. When homework was passed out, I generally completed it and handed it back in before the bell rang, saving me from having to take it home. I did this in front of every other child. Then, when they asked me why I didn’t take my homework home, I would answer by telling them that it was easy, and I didn’t need to, and if you had problems with those questions then you were probably stupid.
And I said these things to children at least a year older than me, some more, who were already jealous of my grade promotion.
I got my ass handed to me. School was a place to fear, and recess was an opportunity to hide, under bleachers and behind bushes, from the children who entertained themselves by beating the stuffing out of my arrogant butt. Once on the playground, it was generally known that I was the target, the pariah. I thought I was better than everyone, and so I should get beaten as hard as possible.
In the first grade, everyone knew why they hated me. By the time high school rolled around, why they hated me had ceased to be relevant. They hated me because that was a done thing. Hate Peter. In the locker rooms of junior high and high school gym, I was beaten down in the showers and peed on. I stopped taking showers, and that led to the PE teacher trying to have me suspended. Those teachers who weren’t Mom’s friends saw me as an object of nepotism, and worked as hard as they could to break me. I graduated high school believing that, despite my many accomplishments, I was near worthless to society.
In large parts of America, this is how geniuses are treated. Genius is not a thing to be celebrated, it is rather a burn-the-witch situation. If someone dares to call themselves intelligent, everyone around them assumes they are putting on airs. Admit it, when you read the first sentence of this blog post you wanted to laugh at my arrogance for even saying it.
Do you even understand how damaging it is to go through that? I learned social skills as a survival mechanism, as a way to protect myself. Underlying those skills are deep, deep fears that in any given social situation I’m a second and a half away from receiving a beating. I’m 6’2″ and weigh over 350 lbs, and I still worry about getting an asskicking from just about everyone I meet. And I will, for the rest of my life.
OK, I titled this piece as a response to some television critics, so let’s tie that in.
When I see a show like Scorpion on CBS, it’s an amazing experience. There’s a lot of critics who are calling it Big Bang Theory, but unfunny. It’s not. Scorpion respects the genius. It places genius on a pedestal. Big Bang Theory laughs at how stupid smart people are. BBT justifies all the beatings, all the mockery, and all the bile poured on me as a child. It tells society that it’s OK to loathe smart people, because obviously they’re stupid. I hate watching BBT. Most of the other smart people I know hate watching BBT. It’s a show of laughing at, not with.
Scorpion, though, is a show in which being a genius is a valuable thing. It comes right out and tells us that it’s characters are geniuses, and that as geniuses they’ve had a rough time in their lives. Now, this show is dealing with people in that 1% of the population smarter than me. But even so, I found it really relatable. It hit home on a very deep, basic level for me. I was that kid. I know what it’s like to not relate to the rest of the world. I know what it’s like to have a conversation with someone and think how in the hell do you not get this, are you an idiot, and to spend almost my whole life holding back from calling someone stupid. And failing. And getting in trouble for it.
And Scorpion basically hits that nail on the head. Its characters are flawed, but brilliant. They need someone to “translate the world” for them, and this is something that most critics aren’t getting but is absolutely true.
Then I read a review like this, and I get to be traumatized all over again by another person being a bully. But this time, it’s on the internet, and this time I have a blog, too, and so maybe I can step up and defend the show about smart kids.
“That guy over there? He’s a genius. You can tell he’s a genius by the way he’s constantly rude and dismissive to women. He pedantically and unceasingly lectures that woman he somehow was dating; he criticizes that waitress’s nail polish because yeah, she’s definitely doing that for his benefit and analysis.”
So, yes. In the first couple minutes of the show, the main character does some things that, from a different perspective, seem misogenist. He has the same sorts of interactions with men, though. This isn’t a sexism thing, it’s a social skills problem. Walter sees the world through the lens of rationality, and most of the things people do aren’t rational. It drives him nuts, and he tends to point it out to people.
“He’s just such a genius, you see. It’s impossible for him to relate to anyone who’s not a genius, and obviously, at the genius club there is only room for one woman, so everyone else who’s not a genius — goats? Is that the opposite of a genius? Who can care? — will simply have to step aside. Genius coming through. Watch out for the genius. Genius here.”
Yes, I understand that you don’t like him. He’s not likable. That’s the point, and frankly the great tragedy behind his life. He’s a brilliant guy who could benefit society, and for the large part society won’t let him. Because to do so, they’d have to admit they weren’t as smart as him, and noone is going to do that.
And there’s four geniuses, one of whom is female. By the way, she’s the badass mechanical engineer, but we’re leaving that part out. This is a bit of a gender imbalance, although it feels like it makes sense. Scorpion (the company) is really built to give the people who can’t relate to society a place to relate to each other. And since the company is based on actual people that were hired by the actual Walter O’Brien, we can maybe forgive CBS for not having an exact male/female ratio here.
The characters mention their respective and collective IQs four times in the first 18 minutes of the show, which should tell you something: First, that they’re geniuses; second, that they’re incredibly insecure; third, that this show thinks you’re a huge, huge idiot; and fourth, this show is not interested in authentic human behavior.
Fair enough on some ham-handedness with the exposition there. That was on the pilot, and they don’t really do this as much in the rest of the show. But they are geniuses, and they are incredibly insecure. They do not know, at any given time, where they stand with the person they’re talking to because they don’t understand why that person isn’t getting it. And then they fall back to what is a perfectly rational (and insulting) argument: I am clearly smarter than you, and therefore in any given situation you are more likely to be wrong and I am more likely to be right. We disagree. Therefore, rationality dictates that we play the probabilities and do what I say, because it is more likely to be right.
“[S]aid brainiacs enlist the help of a pouty diner waitress to help “translate” the world for them. She is of course inclined to help because she’s the mother of a genius, and these government-supported geniuses have promised to help her “reach” him. Indeed, who could be better qualified to help a child than some guy who saw him in a diner once and never spoke to him? Typical genius, always helping. The waitress is Katharine McPhee. I’d say McPhee plays the waitress, but … mostly she stands there in a waitress costume.”
Well, first off, that’s not true. It’s true that McPhee is playing a character that doesn’t think on the level that the other characters do. She’s not as brilliant as them. Neither, by the way, is the Homeland Security Agent for whom these people all work. That seems to get less of a mention in this review.
But both of those characters have an essential function in the show. “Translating” the world, when I first heard the phrase, was a twist of words that got me demonstrably excited. I’ve had friends who provided exactly this service to me throughout my life. “Translators,” as I’ll call them from here on out, are people who don’t mind that I come off as superior and arrogant, and who therefore can stand to communicate directly with me. It is from these people, throughout my life, that I’ve figured out how to act more or less like a human being. When I heard that McPhee was being hired to “translate the world” I damn near jumped up and down clapping, because that’s exactly right. Exactly right.
And let’s talk for a moment about the child. Here’s a kid who has taken the salt and pepper shakers, the sweetener packets, and other condiments and improvised a chess board for himself to play with. Alone. Becuase noone around him understands what he’s doing.
This is actually a thing that I have done. I did it in junior high, not second-grade, but it is a thing I have done. And when someone would ask me what I was doing, I would respond by saying “nothin’,” because if they couldn’t clearly see what I was doing already then they weren’t worth talking to.
So when Walter, and later Syl, started playing chess against the kid using the improvised setup, that was amazing. I imagined what it would have been like if, as a child, I had met someone who did that. Someone who got it. As one of those children, I can tell you right now, without a blink of hesitation, that noone in the world would have been more qualified to help me, even without saying a goddamn word.
Scorpion is a show about how much geniuses can do for the world. It’s also a show about how much pain geniuses can feel in the world. There’s a list of critics out there who don’t, can’t, and won’t get that. Who think that simply labeling someone a genius is a mark of arrogance, as though it were not a biological fact that some brains process information more quickly than others.
I want Scorpion to be popular. I want it desperately, if only becuase its popularity may save some other kid who’s on a path to an ass-beating from the damage I had to endure. If the world recognizes that it’s hard for some of us to relate, then maybe the world will cut us a break every once in a while. Maybe, just maybe, geniuses in backwater settings like mine will be encouraged, and nurtured, if there’s an awareness of the challenges faced by the so-called “gifted.” Maybe more people decide, upon meeting a genius, to start to translate the world for them.
Maybe, just maybe, the world as a whole becomes a bit of a better place as a result.