Robert (gurdonark) wrote,
Robert
gurdonark

The "happy misery" of the median


I spent my first twelve years of school in small town schools in the state whose educational ranking self-image could literally be described as "thank God for Mississippi". My state was ranked 49th for school quality. The school which I attended through tenth grade averaged just below median on all those national standardized tests. I personally tended to test a bit above average, but not staggeringly so. I finished in the top 10 percent of my high school class, but basically did not excel in anything really challenging, but got my As on the easy courses. But in my mind, I was cool, because I knew that my grades were good enough to get me by, and because I knew I did not really work very hard at school yet got good grades.

My undergraduate institution, the University of Arkansas, actually had a rule that ANYONE from Arkansas with a C average and a minimal ACT score HAD to be admitted to the school. This leads me to my oft-repeated joke--we didn't have an admissions committee at my school per se, but if we had, the single question for admission would have been "ere ye breathin'?".

Until I got to college, though, I never felt that anyone I met was really any smarter or more capable than I was. A few people got rather higher grades, but they also worked much harder than I did. Somehow, in my mind, I was really a creme of the crop, notwithstanding that C in Algebra II. I knew that all my grades were on some level "gentleman's Cs", only this particular gentleman could usually manage a B+ or A.

My first semester of college changed all that. Kids who had gone to Little Rock's Catholic High School came to college knowing calculus, which my high school had not even come within remote striking distance of offering to teach me. All around me, science folks and engineers were capable at things at which I struggled mightily. I had had relatively good English teachers, so I could write the proverbial five paragraph essay. The five paragraph essay essentially was my ticket to an "A" in virtually every liberal arts course. But throughout my college career, any course of any real difficulty proved to be more than equal to my combination of limited aptitude and limited work ethic. I didn't have too much trouble passing, but I was clearly a solid also-ran.

It was an intriguing feeling in those days, seeing myself skilled at liberal arts things that nobody really cared about, and fairly hopeless at all those vocational math and science things which the job market demanded at that time. I had been "raised" to be a doctor by my dad, a country doctor. But within a year, I had dragged my GPA down to "B" level, making this "birthright" unobtainable.

One thing for which I am grateful is that I grew up in small towns where lots of very smart people had limited formal education. I have always had good friends who were well-read, thoughtful, bright people for whom formal education was just not important at all. In the case of two of my closest friends from high school, the rejection of post-secondary education was a matter of pride, a sort of reverse snobbery, a rejection of all the "powers that be" that insist upon 'getting ahead' and 'getting rich'. So at least I did not imagine that book learning skill and intelligence were the same thing. Smart people are not measured by the letters after their names.

But I surprised myself in college when I learned just how important thinking myself "book smart" was to my self-image. It was such a comforting notion to me prior to college that I was an under-achieving genius. Never mind that my own IQ test scores were merely "quite good" and not "brilliant". Never mind that I made a 29 on my ACT, not a 36, and a 1280 on my SAT, not a 1400. Although all the evidence pointed to "slightly above average", I had this whole mental self-image of 'really brainy'. I had disdained those whom I perceived to be less intelligent than I was who worked so hard to get grades, as if their lives depended on it.

When I think of some of those folks about whom I engaged in this foolish reverse snobbery, I now realize that most of them required astronomic grades in order to be able to easily afford college. When one grows up in a blue collar mill town, great grades can be the ticket from the mill to a white collar job. By contrast, my education was essentially going to be paid for. At the time, I did not realize how often class distinction figured into these "worker bees" at school; now it is much clearer to me. I was just one generation on each side removed from blue collar folks, but that generation's difference meant that my education would be paid for, and many of my classmates' would not be. By contrast, my father was valedictorian of his high school class and my mother saluatarian of hers, and I have to think that the socio-economics of advancement through education figured in there someplace.

But college taught me that while I was no idiot, I was not a particularly genius-like person, but just one of those "educable, bright enough people" of which most of us are comprised. I finished my college career with a 3.02 (2.67 in my major, 3.8something in liberal arts courses). As I've described elsewhere in my journal, I took the Law School Admission Test, scored an above average but not stunning score, and got admission to a local State U law school.

In law school, I worked as hard as all those kids I disdained in
high school. I got very high grades, but not because I was anyone special, but because I worked so very hard and had a middling amount of aptitude for the material. I worked so hard for a simple reason--I did not believe I was good enough to be in law school, and merely wanted to avoid flunking out.

In college, I had learned that middling grades could puncture one's over-inflated sense of genius. From law school, I learned that while high grades could bolster one's ego, no matter what one did, one could still find oneself feeling very mediocre. I had, after all, gone to a State U and not to a "top" law school. Law schools and law employers are extremely rank conscious. While an engineering degree from Texas Tech and an engineering degree from U Texas do not really confer huge competitive differences, a law grad of U Texas has a discernible advantage over a law grad of T. Tech in law hiring. My school, Arkansas--Little Rock, was a solid commuter school which tended to place all its grads into low paid local jobs. I got a higher paying job in a mid-size Dallas firm, but my firm, while "good", was not a "top firm", but rather a solid "midsize". As an attorney, I've always earned a good living, sometimes get asked to speak on rather arcane topics in my arcane little areas of practice, and I've over the past few years developed a clientele of my own that calls me with new cases. I can try a civil commercial case competently, handle all the intricacies of an insurance company failure, and even do a fair bit of intellectual property drafting (many kudos to my old law school friend who produced Grade Z horror films). I have one of those practices that is really cool--at one time last year, I was simultaneously handling a major intellectual property licensing negotiation while readying a consumer rights case involving a mis-installed mobile home in rural Texas for trial (the cross-examination at the arbitration hearing, in which in Perry Mason fashion I got the installer to admit that he took the course on "how to install a mobile home" six weeks after he installed the one in issue, was one of the most hilariously fun in my life). I'm rarely bored, although I'm sometimes very overlooked. I love that I know what I'm doing, and that I control my own work destiny. But in so many ways of the world, I'm utterly, hopelessly mediocre. I am a good lawyer, and I will always earn a living, but I will never be part of anyone's "dream team".

I live a pleasant, upper-middle-class life, but it's upper-middle-class with very small letters. I drive a car that's paid for, but it's a boring American sedan, not a sports car. We live in a nice tract home with a postage stamp yard in a nice neighborhood, not in the kind of luxury homes in luxury neighborhoods that some of my lawyer friends live within. My wife and I both work, and we both contribute, and we will live reasonably graciously and retire reasonably comfortably. We live relatively modestly, which helps. But in the long run, we are ordinary with a capital "o" materially. We are both nice people, but we also lack any form of saintliness. We are neither Midas nor Mother Theresa.

I've focused on externals here--grades, career success, and money. Although I'm as flawed and narrow-focused as the next man, I like to think I treat those things with neither disdain nor with excessive attention. But I pen this post because the thing that I notice is that I DO notice all these material things. As much as I try to keep them all in perspective, I am sometimes quite aware that I work very hard to achieve a life that is completely middle of the road. If I am to adjudge my success by externals, I'm fine, but I'm no great shakes. I'm that kinda "B" student from college. I love to go fishing, but guess what I usually fish for?
Little sunfish I catch from a tiny park pond, using earth worms.

I of course do hobby things like creative writing for fun, but my experience is that my "work" in this field is more about fun and less about talent. In 1999, I wrote a chess poem book after hearing an NPR spot about iuniverse.com, one of the first companies to permit self-publishing inexpensively using "print on demand" technology. I calculated that I could self-publish even more cheaply by creating a little chapbook I could photocopy. I had published a handful of poems in tiny little journals in years past, and had written poetry as a hobby in internet forums for years. I recognized that at that time, one could sell a world of things on ebay.com and other on line auctions if one merely marketed cleverly in one's ad copy. Accordingly, I created "Chess Poems for the Tournament Player" and promptly sold several dozen copies over the internet. I was gratified recently to see that chess master Bill Wall, a chess historian of sorts, actually lists my book on a list of books about chess literature. I still auction the book from time to time, but I believe I have pretty much "sold" its audience, as ebay auctions frequently go now without a winning bidder. The whole thing was a gratifying experiment, and I intend to self-publish my second poetry chapbook when I finally get around to creating the art for it, but it is definitely "bad poet/hobbyist" rather than some real artistic spark. Similarly, I do mail art because it is fun and not because I am crafty or artistic. When I see the things posted on Lj by folks who can use digicams and HTML well (I can't, by the way), I'm amazed by how solid everything is.

I wrote a post months ago about how I "blame" my condition of mediocrity upon being a "polymath", which I used (slightly inappropriately) to mean someone who is slightly good at lots of things, but not really good at anything. But this post is not intended to explain "why" I am this way, or to bewail this fate. I may be 43, but I do not always have to live in mid-life crisis (it appears, for example, that I am going to forego the customary 40something affairs altogther, which is very good for my marriage, although it will sadly reduce the Falconcrest quality of my journal). Instead, I want to use the silly quality of the preceding chronology to make a point--if we value everything in money or skill or genius or some other external, everything golden in our lives falls off the scales upon which we keep weighing the dust from which we come and to which we return.

In my nephews' "top notch" local schools, homework, achievement, competition and "getting ahead" are everything. There is much to be said for this. But I can't help but wonder if we aren't all losing something when we live "in our achievements". We can't be happy, productive caring people anymore. We have to be "top dollar earners" or "fabulous artists" or "incredible novelists" or "the smartest person I know". What's missing? Perspective.

I've written before, but will write here again, at how much I admire James Hilton's novel "Goodbye, Mr. Chips". "Chips", the character Chipping, is a Latin master at a second rate English school. He has a second-rate degree, from a second rate institution, teaching a dead language, and he frankly is a bit outmoded in his method and manners with his Latin subject matter. He is an outright eccentric, and far less brilliant than others with whom he deals. Yet this protagonist of a simple little "between the wars" moral story is to me one of the most important characters in literature. Chipping realizes something very important. His job is not so much to teach Latin, or produce brilliant scholars. His job is to transmit perspective. Because genius, money, power and fame--these are not what is so elusive. Perspective is instead the rosetta stone by which everything else can be measured.

I find myself lately having to stop myself to count my blessings.
I have been married for twelve years to someone to whom I am apt to stay married for life. I have family members I love, who love me. I have income and comfort necessary to my needs. I am not easily bored, and am almost never in fact bored. I have fun hobbies. People are frequently frighteningly nice to me. I feel at home being who I am.

I'm not saying I'm flawless. I am in my personal life so deeply disorganized that it is almost amusing. I'm overweight, under-exercised, and prone to over-working. I spend a fair bit of time with hobbies, and yet I can count seven to ten things in short order I have been procrastinating doing for months. I focus on my work, so that I do not fall behind, but my job routinely requires me to work very hard. I am a recovering "difficult person to work for"--I just cared "way too much" about driving projects to completion. I am one of those people who is fundamentally shy, and yet unfortunately not remarkably tactful or quiet. I don't do all that well with so many things other people do so much better.

But really, it's not about how many dominoes are in my tray. It's not even about if the dominoes are neatly stacked in the tray. One can have one's family, a job that does not drive one crazy, a belief structure in which one can function, and the chance to do a meaningful thing once in a while. All one needs is perspective. Perspective is not a universal balm, but it sure seems important to me. I think of kids I grew up with, whose goal in life was to go 16 miles down the road to the local small university, get a degree in education, and then move back to the small town we all grew up in to raise families on teacher's salaries among the same people they had known all their lives. I would never have dreamed of following this course, but now it seems so very wise to me. It's a curious thing, too--in Gurdon, Arkansas we had few stores, and the nearest mall was 80 miles away. We had no "Nutcracker Suite", no "Christmas Parade", and everyone got a small Scotch pine tree from in front of the grocery store. But I have never been around more festive Christmas seasons in the years since, though I've lived in much more materially abundant places. We had something which was not the best, or the brightest, or the richest, or the most creative. But it was something real.

Sometimes I am all too aware of how ordinary I am. But I begin to realize, as the years go on, that "am I ordinary?" is not even the right question, and therefore the answer is immaterial.
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