Monday, May 08, 2006

True Measure of Intelligence

In high school, one of my many jobs was in a bakery. It may very well have been this job that first taught me the variety of people offered in the greater-world. Before, employment, such as waiting tables, had always kept me with other kids my own age, whether they were in school or drop-outs. The bakery position was the first to actually mix me with adult workers, trying to survive in the world of bills and responsibilities. I remember the manager Mary, that believed young love was pointless and all problems could be solved with flowers; the training-Manager Joe and his shameless pursuit of women – of whom I later wrote a college English story; the short womanizing Don Juan-esque clerk, Paul that enjoyed singing, while he worked and seemed to win every raffle he ever entered, including one for a new car; and Becky, the short half-crazy clerk that bragged to anyone who would listen that her mail-carrier husband had raped her on their first date. Needless to say it was an eye-opening introduction to the blue-collar world.

But mostly, I remember John. He wore glasses and a shaggy beard that made him look twice as old as his twenty-five years. He was not quick-witted and as a smartass teenager, I did my best to exemplify this quality through practical jokes. For some reason he liked me, though. He did not work at the bakery for very long, but I do remember an after-work invitation to visit the apartment he shared with his girlfriend a week or two before he quit. We sat around his kitchen table, an acquisition from the Salvation Army thrift store and I engaged in my first philosophical conversation. Our discussion didn’t include recitations from Voltaire or platitudes of Plato. Instead, it was a simple discussion of life and the little things that made people like John and his girlfriend continue the journey. They moved all over the country always trying to find better jobs. Neither had finished high school, but John was planning to stay around my hometown long enough to complete his equivalency test. I must have sat at that table for four hours that night just listening to their dreams. They reminded me of the Joad family in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, always searching for something better. There is one thing from that evening that John said that I have never forgotten. He stated that his greatest fear was Alzheimer’s disease and if he ever developed it, he would want to die before it advanced too far. What made this guy fear the loss of intelligence, when he so obviously didn’t have that much to lose?

I treasure knowledge and learning and work to instill that same respect for scholarship in my children – and that’s the answer to why John with so little knowledge valued what he had. He respected intelligence – to whatever degree, great or small.

Rather than actual cleverness, intellect is instead simply an acceptance of respect to personal aptitude. He resigned from the bakery and moved to California, a couple weeks later, I’m not sure if he ever earned his GED for a High School equivalency diploma. John was without dreams of academic prowess or even business success, rather he wanted to use what he had to see the country while surviving along the way – an everyday Kerouac, without the downside of the intellectual’s common burden of depression (I’m not saying all intellectuals experience depression, just that its more common). The funniest thing is – despite the way he lived his life, I doubt John had even heard of Kerouac. – DN

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