I had a warped view of intelligence as a kid. There is no doubt that I was a smart kid…. At least there is no doubt I was a smart kid now that I can look back. When I was growing up in the inner city of Chicago television influenced my understanding of society. There were great sitcoms like Dogie Houser that portrayed what intelligence looked like. By all measurements of intelligence I was a smart kid. I taught myself how to program using the instruction manual that came with my computer and computer magazines. Looking back, I was pretty dog on good. I wrote a couple of video games, nothing really serious but good stuff for a high school student. However, I never really felt smart. Plenty of people in my community would comment on how intelligent I was but I never really bought it. A part of me struggles to this day when someone calls me smart.
I think the main reason is that what I saw on TV didn’t jive with what I saw in my neighborhood. I contribute my perceived intelligence to my ability to believe it or not read. I had the capability to visualize and comprehend written text unlike most of my other peers. It may sound trivial but this is still one of my most vital advantages professionally. However, I really didn’t understand the extent of my advantage until I had to take a non-honors English in high school.
It really never dawned on me that I was especially bright. Not until I had the blessing of attending a culturally diverse high school. Back in the late 80′s, my high school was maybe 30 percent black, 30 percent white, 30 percent hispanic and 10 percent arabic. It was a great melting pot of people from different cultures and different learning styles. But, I found one thing to be consistent, other kids at my school, no matter their race couldn’t comprehend what they read. In this non-honors English class for example, we’d read a few paragraphs from The Grapes of Wrath and my English teacher Mrs. Davis would stop and ask, “Ok what just happened to the main character?” Everyone in the room would have this blank stare on their face. I’d sit back in my chair and wonder, “Are you serious?” No one knew the answer to this simple question. I looked like a genius when I raised my hand several times in a row to answer the question. Believe me, I’m no genius.
This helped clear a couple of things up for me. One it was a myth that all white kids were smart and two, public education in Chicago sucked. My intelligence had nothing to do with my skin but had more to do with my God given ability and the instruction I was given. In no other area was this more evident than when I went to compete outside of my school and region. I was honored to go to some computer programing competitions. These competitions were city wide and included some competition from some of the better public schools and some private schools. As I mentioned, I was a pretty good programmer for a 15 year old. However, I got my butt handed to me in these competitions.
I know now that it wasn’t because the other kids were smarter than me. It was because they were better equipped for the type of challenges that were presented at these competitions. They’d get challenges like creating a calendar applications that took into account leap years. I had no idea of how to approach a problem such as creating a calendar program. I wrote programs that solved problems I had in my own life like, I couldn’t afford to buy video games so I wrote one. I’m sure if it were a video game writing contest I would have won. The fact was because,I was part of an underprivileged environment I couldn’t reach my full potential without some extra level of support.
I discovered that no, white kids weren’t smarter than me but they were much better equipped than I was to take on academic and professional challenges because they had better opportunities. So, the results are in the pudding as they say. When I went back to my neighborhood, I’d hear from the older folk, “Great job Keith. You did great seeing you were competing against a bunch of white kids.” Yea, I wish I was as smart as the white kids.