Friday, October 22, 2004

You Aren't As Smart as You Think You Are 

I had been told that everything was going on my permanent record. The classes I skipped, the tests I flunked, the fights I fought and my insubordinate attitude. None of that mattered because I was thirteen years old, it was New York City in the midst of the Crack-Era of the Cold War, and all I cared about was impressing girls, winning fights and avoiding boredom.

My junior high school had the look of an upstate correctional facility that had fallen into Chelsea. There were metal gates before the doors and narrow windows. Security guards patrolled the entrance. You weren't allowed to wear a coat indoors because it was too easy to conceal weapons. It was named for a famous New York City writer but known only by the bureaucratic designation "seventy."

The place was organized like a prison, with a violent hierarchy in which I found myself very near the bottom. Kids from the neighboring projects controlled the hallways, while those of us from farther down in the Village were faced with the choice: subordinate your dignity and tolerate a few years of getting yoked, robbed and humiliated--or adopt a stance of defiance and insubordination and tolerate a few years of violence.

I might have been happier if I had been able to hold my eyes a little lower but I was temperamentally unsuited to subordination. Besides I had younger brothers who were coming into the school and it had always been my role to protect them. So I fought back. The first fights were easy because no-one expected you to respond to their taunts or pushes with a knuckle to the chin. After that they jumped you, five or six throwing as many punches and kicks as they could.

The only way out of this conundrum that I could see when I was in the sixth and seventh grade was to assemble what we called "back-up"--a crew of people who would jump those who jumped you. This proved impossible among my classmates. They were thoroughly subordinate, unwilling to raise a clenched fist or join a proposed alliance of mutual protection.

I discovered the secret to my classmates' subordination. They were not surrendering their dignity. They maintained their self-respect by telling themselves that they were behaving civilized amidst savagery. They were convinced of their intellectual and moral superiority over their tormentors and took comfort in this. After three years of junior high school they would be culled from this dull, violent herd and sent to New York City's elite public schools, Bronx Science or Stuyvesant. Their passivity was a subtle form of snobbery.

It was a snobbery that "seventy" encouraged through its academic tracking system. Students were divided into three tracks. Track One was predominately kids from the Village, and everyone else was in Tracks Two and Three. It was never clear to the Track Ones who was in Track Two or Three because we never had occasion to see their classrooms and inquiring into which of the lesser Tracks someone had been sorted was a very certain way of provoking violence. There was rumored to be a track four but I never met with any evidence of this. Track One was the Victim Track and the others were the Dominator Track.

My willingness to fight back was generally taken by the Track One kids as a sign that I lacked intelligence. It was risky, it was unconventional and I was "stooping to their level." So my classmates not only regarded me as foolish but as most likely stupid. Probably I didn't belong in Track One at all.

I fought, and I got jumped, and I still fought. I quickly discovered that not only was I good at what we called “the knuckle game” but that I enjoyed it. I became deliberately provocative. In a school dominated by mid-eighties hip-hop fashion, I took to wearing outlandish punk-rock clothing. Sta-Press pants that wouldn't tear in a fight. Steal-capped Doc Martens that were brutal when used as weapons. Rings with spikes.

By eighth grade I didn't need to fight that often. I had acquired a reputation for being crazy--someone whose behavior was unpredictable and uncontrollable. Rumors circulated that I had thrown a kid named Angel out a second story window. Nobody bothered my younger brother when he arrived because he had me as his "back-up." Girls paid attention to me for the usual reasons.

And I got bored. School had always been unendingly dull to me but I had spent two years distracted by the constant possibility of violence. I began to hate schools and schooling. I suspected that it was just a way to warehouse children and press them into some model of conformity. And I was right.

There was no real way to fight off the boredom except to avoid school altogether by taking to the streets of Chelsea. This was when west Chelsea was Puerto Rican and not fashionably homosexual, when the Maritime was Pheonix House, and the now trendy streets to the south and west were populated only by trannie-hookers, older men cruising for younger men along the piers and junkies of every variety.

It was the perfect place to enact the anarchy that I craved. I found that after two years of subordination, some of my classmates were ready for a change even if they weren't ready to join my insurrection. They were ready not to mutiny but desert. We drank forties on loading docks, shared a bottle of Jack Daniels on a condemned pier, inhaled nitrous oxide and fell down on the streets giggling. I became good friends with Sully, a fellow rebel who hailed from deep in the East Village. Rachel put her tongue in my ear, and Joanie let me put my hand up her shirt.

Not all of my Track One classmates joined us. There were manywho kept their noses in their books, confident that their refusal to join our rebellion was a sign of their superior intelligence. I agreed with them. Let the brains keep to the brainy things, while the not-dim-but-not-that-bright rebels keep rebelling.

One day in Spring the school summoned the eighth grade class to the auditorium to inform us the results of the placement tests we had taken early that year. These were called Secondary School Aptitude Tests and were mini-SAT's with verbal and math sections. We had been told that our scores on the SSAT's would be evaluated along with our attendance and our class grades to determine which high school we went to. The best would go the Stuyvesant, the next to Bronx Science, and the rest to their "zoned" school, which meant four more years spent among a population very much like that of "seventy."

I didn't even open the envelope. My attendance was so bad that I had more or less dropped out. When I went to class it was mostly to sleep at a desk in the back. I wasn't even sure what my grades were because I had taken to burning my report cards before opening them. The envelope got thrown onto the ground.

What was the point anyway? I saw even some of the smartest of the subordinated snobs sob as they were rejected from the specialized high schools. I even took a secret joy in their pain--there was no escape for them. They would now have to choose continued subordination or join my rebellion. But if the bar for entrance to the best high schools prohibitted them, I didn't have a chance. I figured someone would find some way of telling me where I was supposed to report for classes next fall.

"Oh, fuck yeah. Eat this, nerds. Stuyvesant!" It was the voice of Sully. He was waving his envelope above his head. He had been accepted at Stuyvesant. Sully, my fellow punk-rock hero, was going to the best school in New York City. I felt betrayed and then I felt hopeful.

I picked up the envelope from where I had thrown it on the auditorium floor. Inside was a small note with my scores and my school. I was going to Stuyvesant. I wasn't supposed to care. School was for suckers. Fuck the teachers. But I was happy. Sully and I marched out of the auditorium and out of "seventy" to go drink in Tompkins Square park and celebrate this unlikely triumph over the system.

We drank and talked and pealed back the veil of deception that had governed our lives. A couple of things were plain. Our grades and attendance did not matter at all. The permanent record was bunk. All that mattered were our scores on that aptitude test and we had scored exceptionally well. What's more, we realized that the nerds weren't always smart. Their apparent braininess, their pose of intellectual superiority, was more often than not simply a cover for their social awkwardness and physical cowardice. And this made sense. While others had suffered countless indignities for the past three years, we had figured out how to liberate ourselves and have fun. How could we not have seen this as a sign of intelligence?

I know you are not supposed to write stories like this. The narrator of every story is the bookish kid who hangs around the tough, cool kid. But that wasn't the way it was with me, and I've never found the bookish kid to chronicle my life so that task has fallen to me. If it makes you feel comfortable, Sully was bigger than I and a better fighter. So maybe I was the bookish one after all.

Last night in the Cellar I found myself telling this story over my fifth glass of Jameson Irish Whisky to someone who was arguing that George Bush was obviously less intelligent than John Kerry. I said I wasn't sure. Sometimes the intelligent ones don't sound that way, and sometimes the smart sounding kids don't have as much smarts as they appear to. Bush probably has more raw smarts than Kerry, but I'd say he doesn't know as much because he isn't that interested in knowing things. I'm not sure any of this has anything to do with who should be President.