Genius Boy, part 1

There are many aspects of my life story that are hard to write about for different reasons — shame being a big one, also in some cases worrying about the backlash of disbelief. And there is the issue of potentially airing others’ dirty laundry or just private information. However this particular topic is uniquely difficult in that it is both a lifelong source of alienation and a topic that has not gotten much sympathy over the years. Often I’ve had a harsh backlash reaction, even with therapists, trying to explain the difficulty of being smarter than the average bear. However my platonic ideal goal for writing a memoir is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so I cannot exclude writing about this.

A gentle reminder to any readers that I am in the writing phase and not the editing phase, which will come much later when I have substantially more pages, so forgive the rambling nature of the writing…

Added editorial note — this post is definitely not great writing. Caveat emptor or whatever.

I was a pretty inquisitive and self-guiding kid. As my mother liked to recount, apparently I came to her at age two with one of my earliest books, I Am a Bunny, and showed off by reading aloud the entire book. She had no idea how I had learned to read. I suspect Sesame Street had something to do with it. As I don’t remember much before age 6 I have to take her word for it that I was a bit precocious.

I remember around age 7 and 8 I became really interested in taking rotary phones apart down to the tiniest screws and then reassembling them. Those things were weird. Inside there was all this grease. One time I managed to have a big hunk of phone internal that looked, to be honest, like some sort of explosive device, in my coat pocket as we went through airport security, which, circa 1980, was just walking through passive metal detectors. I was really impressed by how the metal detector did not go off with this 3 pound chunk of very much metal (and wires and grease) in my pocket. Was it because it was highly magnetic? Curious…

Actually one of my very earliest memories was when I was two or three, and I stuck a key in a power outlet. The result was comical. I was blown back physically and both my fingers and the outlet blackened a bit from the large electric arc. I paused a minute or so and repeated the experiment, to see if there was a consistent pattern. It feels like there is some buried metaphor for my life trajectory in this anecdote.

Day care at age 5 and then first grade were the only times I remember really liking school. For one thing so much was tangible — making turkeys out of construction paper or playing with tasty glue or blocks, running around on the playground. I remember laughing a lot. By second grade my attitude towards school plummeted. It was my 3rd school in 3 years and so I was having to make new friends again. Also the teacher, presumably with the administration’s blessings, divided the class into three groups *based on merit*, which were the gold group, the silver group, and the brown group. I was in the gold group. But I was so horrified and offended by the existence of a brown group that I silently protested by no longer doing any of my homework. After school as I walked across the grounds heading for my new supervised hangout at the B___s house, I would toss assignment sheets to the wind. Still I remember receiving all Satisfactory marks on report cards. And hey, I was in the gold group! This would be the beginning of a lifelong pattern of being rewarded for natural ability rather than effort, a curse that has haunted me.

Third grade, a 4th school, now in the suburbs of Philadelphia, there were some things I liked. The progressive approach to the public school in Marion, PA was that students were grouped within each subject by achievement rather than age, which meant that I got to take classes with 4th and 5th graders. Being challenged was nice. In fact the school had a program for gifted students called Challenge, and I believe in 4th grade they tested me with standard IQ test and accepted me into the program, which was great as it meant exiting normal classes a couple times a day to be with a smaller group of genius kids where we’d learn logic puzzles and critical thinking. I followed my friend Tim, who had been admitted the year before, and he even helped me cheat by giving me one of the IQ test questions in advance: “define espionage”. I think the tester probably raised an eyebrow when I responded “the act or practice of spying”.

The testing for Challenge was the first time I was so tested, though would not be the last. And I remember clearly how they explained, probably to my mother who relayed this to me, that I scored well above average in most categories, including “intrapersonal intelligence” which was sort of a theory of mind metric about how well you understood others’ motivations and reasoning, but that I scored well below average in “interpersonal intelligence”, which was basically my social skills. Given I had been to 4 schools already, was told at home that I was an impossible burden and my mom would kill herself if I didn’t get easier, and had little to no guidance, and no experience with siblings or cousins, this was not very surprising, but still notable. I remember that year my very first hints of being socially rejected, with a single incident, where I overheard some of the popular girls laughing and mocking another girl, Melissa Friedman, saying “YOU like Jason Boyd!!! Hahaha heeheehee”. I had become the butt of a joke. Ironically — if you’re out there reading this Melissa… — she was my very first crush too. Sigh.

It was also this year that I met my first nemesis, Caleb. I remember one day I solved the Rubik’s cube I’d been carrying around, using brute force rather than the later solution books you could study, and Caleb grabbed it and threw it on the floor smashing it into pieces. But that is for another story.

Despite Challenge and the Calebs of the world, I don’t remember feeling particularly ostracized for being smart in those grade school days. Tim became a close friend and he was super smart. By 6th grade, where we all went on the the much larger middle school at Bala Cynwyd, I had developed a small posse of smart, nerdy, and somewhat emotionally scarred friends. Tim had watched his father die in front of him, having fallen off a ladder. Asher was a military brat moving around a lot like me. Hugh was the fat kid, not sure what other hardships he may have endured; I remember him getting all into sex talk in 5th grade. One who’s name is on tip of my brain was a straddler, hanging both with our group and with Caleb and the future delinquents. Stephanie and Jenny were more enigmatic, being of the female species. But we were the smart kids.

Tim actually introduced me to books when I was 11. Having learned to read at age 2, it apparently never occurred to me to read anything other than school assignments (Red Badge of Courage anyone?), but one summer, Tim came down to visit me in Georgia for a couple weeks, and brought with him Piers Anthony’s On a Pale Horse, the first book of the Incarnations of Immortality series. I read it and was hooked immediately. Science and magic and adult humor and tongue-and-cheek jokes woven into the storyline. Soon I would read just about everything by Anthony, a very prolific YA author of fantasy and sci-fi, and then on to Asimov and Clark and Niven and the like. I also read joke collections, and started a lifelong interest in artificial intelligence and virtual reality, both fields that were more theoretical than actual in the early 80s. Because I was so addicted and because I was so undisciplined with school, I made a deal with myself that I could only read when I had completed some schoolwork, which for a while worked pretty well.

That same summer when I was 11, I got up to some other shenanigans. I had one friend in Athens, Ryan, who lived that year in the same condo complex as my dad and Anne. We mostly went swimming and biking, sometimes down to the Piggly Wiggly to buy bear claws for $0.50 or to the arcade to play Space Ace and Q-Bert and such. But we also collected bugs, stick them in the freezer until they seemed dead, then pin them to cardboard. When thawed they would awaken and wriggle around, very cool. One day I constructed a solar powered cooker. The Georgia summer was regularly in the 90s or higher, very bright. I covered the inside of an umbrella with aluminum foil and mounted a casserole dish at the focal point on the handle, and was able to use this setup to make sunbaked cheese sandwiches.

I also remember that summer a prescient endeavor — I made what would years later be basically a video game, but analog. The game was called Cops and Robbers, and was a board game. I made a big floor plan of a bank on poster board, and in every room at each entrance/exit were a bunch of little black and red numbers. You played as robbers, who had to sneak into the bank and into the vault and make off with the money bags. After each move from one room to another, you’d roll dice, once for each cop piece, and the cops would move based on the numbers in their current room. If you ever tripped the alarm or got spotted, suddenly the cops switched to the red numbers, which I guess led them to pursue you towards the exits to the bank. Shootouts were handled with dice rolls as well. It was actually fun. What’s interesting is that the mechanics were not dissimilar to how you would code a video game with NPCs (non-player characters), though this was before I’d ever owned a computer. Might have been the year I got my first Atari… In a future life I would become a video game developer, so this moment at age 11 was foreshadowing.

Hmmm noticing that my writing kind of sucks today, but whatever, telling the story…

When I returned at the end of summer heading into seventh grade I got a real blow. Mom was all excited, and said “Guess what?! We’re moving back to Boston!!”. Now, at this point we had lived in the Philly suburbs since I was 8. I’d made a circle of friends and attended school with them in grades 3,4,5,6, and was well into adolescence, starting to almost *like* going to school. Since my earliest memories alive were age 6 and on, I’d effectively spent most of my life in Philly, and had no memory of this place called Boston. I was very depressed.

Due to god knows what reasons, we made the actual move about a month into the new school year. So I got to see the friends I’d not seen all summer — Jenny and I were sort of becoming flirty friends — and got the only 4 weeks of US History I would ever receive in K-12. And then we packed up everything into a car and made the 6 hour drive to Needham, MA, a pretty affluent Western suburb of Boston. I remember vividly being stuck in traffic in Manhattan (this was many years before Mapquest or Google), with my cat Calico in the car. Calico was inherited from Bob, who had 3 cats and a black lab, and would be a constant companion throughout my teens. When we stopped in Needham at the realtor’s office, Calico leapt from the car and headed off into the brush near the train tracks, disappearing. Having never stepped foot in our new home, and neither my mom or me knowing anyone in town, it is somewhat of a miracle that the cat was returned to us, skinny and scared, about two months later.


Needham was a radical shift, and traumatic. For one thing I had to say goodbye to all my friends, having only a year earlier said goodbye to Bob and his kids, David and Robin. My four year stint having almost-but-not-quite siblings. David was a year younger than me, adopted from Cambodia, with unknown early trauma. We got into all sorts of trouble running around the neighborhood. Robin was three years older, and a prototypical Jewish American Princess, and I don’t remember missing her at any point.

So that life with brother, sister, two parents, three cats, a dog, a big house with a yard we could go sledding in, and a growing cohort of geeky smart friends… all of it was replaced with good old mom and this new town. Mom who told me the reason we had to leave Bob and them was because Bob couldn’t stand me. (Even at that age I had deep skepticism about this analysis.)

As the school year was in progress, I remember the teachers hooked me up with a student guide, Matthew D__, to show me around the Pollard Middle School in Needham. A few things immediately stood out to me about this new place. The strangest was that ALL the kids were like 1-2 inches shorter than they ought to be. I would eventually come to understand that puberty and adolescence were happening a good year or two later in Needham than they had in Philly. Which meant I got to experience the Puberty Wars twice. In that brief stint at 7th grade in my old school, the horrible factions and Mean Girls-esque nastiness had seemed to be dying down, as if everyone had entered some new phase of grown-up seriousness. Not so in Needham.

The second thing I noticed was that this was an incredibly homogeneous population. Everyone was white, and either Irish and Catholic or Italian and Catholic. Also notably racist — there was anti-black racism floating around, despite not a single black student anywhere to be found. I don’t think the Italians and Irish accepted each other blindly either. This was odd to me having spent years in Athens, GA, where there was a very distinct black population that lived on the other side of town in vastly different economic reality, as well as Philly, where there was a wider range of students ethnically and economically coming in from different areas to Bala Cynwyd Middle School.

The third thing I noticed was that I was instantly the target of widespread bullying. Some immediately started calling me “new kid”. Which later became “Oil Can Boyd” on account of that was the nickname of a Red Sox player, and my hair became constantly greasy as second puberty and escalating tensions on the home front caused my testosterone to go through the roof. A common derision in Needham was to say of someone “oh, yeah, he’s a *good* *kid*…” With sneering sarcasm. I noticed a trend right away that these kids did not seem particularly smart in their insults or otherwise. And just so much nastiness, like real hate being spewed. For me this was nearly constant. I became scared to go to school, and would wander the halls with my head down, being taunted and snickered at by, it seemed, everyone.

This was also the first time I started being explicitly bullied for my intelligence. Which is the topic of this post.

Pollard graded on the curve, which for those unfamiliar meant that the spread of grades from A to F was predetermined — the highest X scores got an A, and the weakest got an F, or something like this. Actually that can’t be precisely right because an effect of the curve was that if someone got a *perfect* score this would actually raise the threshold needed to get an A, and so, in wonderfully terrible education design, this meant that someone who was really smart would lower everyone else’s grades. Brilliant, Needham! You inbred racist privileged hicks! Well done!

So yeah. Up until this time I was accustomed to getting basically As on all exams and papers, with very little if any studying. I did struggle a lot with book reports or research papers. In Philly I remember sometimes being up past bedtime, crying, with my mom consoling me and prodding me to just keep going. It would be many years before neuropsych testing revealed a disability processing text and language. But for the most part I still was a straight-A student, until Needham. I remember one time being yelled at and insulted by some kids after school who were calling me “brain” and “nerd” and such.

To make it worse, I got bullied by a teacher. One day in math class, the teacher was handing back our exams, and I saw that he had given me an F, with a note saying “see me after class”. I raised my hand and asked what the deal was. I pointed out that none of my answers were marked as incorrect, just a big red F at the top. The teacher said yes, because you cheated. You didn’t show your work. I was incredulous. This was a test on long division, with 2 and 3 digit numbers. I said, I didn’t have to do any “work” I just calculated the answers in place. The teacher told me to stand up, and then began asking me long division questions. When I was able to spit out the answers standing there like an idiot, he looked embarrassed and said okay you can sit down. I would only discover between periods in the bathroom that my classmate Dave had drawn on my face with a pen and the teacher didn’t bother to mention this while he had me standing up being interrogated.

I came away from this thinking, my math teacher is a moron, and so is everyone in this fucking school. I also felt, why is no one protecting me? From relentless bullying both at school and at home. I was alone in the world.

Pollard was segregated into two “houses”, the Omega House and the Alpha House. At the end of 7th grade a teacher informed me that they had placed me in the wrong house, and I was switched for 8th grade, which I swear did seem like an improvement in that my new classmates were all future advanced placement kids. Not as drastic as another new town, but this perpetuated the sense of forever starting over. Also it harkened back to the gold group and the brown group, and furthered my general disdain for education. The bullying didn’t diminish either, though I made some closer friends who were smarter. Howie was the cliché Asian kid who excelled at math and art and music. Eric C, Eric M, Ben, Tony, Pete… I don’t recall knowing any girls at this point. My friends were the types of dorks who quoted Monty Python in funny voices and also got As a lot. However unlike Philly I was more aloof and withdrawn. I remember walking home and counting to 5 in my head, then doing that 5 times, than doing all that 5 times… Watching the cracks on the sidewalk. Stay invisible, stay invisible…

My first year in Needham I had a friend, Eric Miller, who was bullied similarly to me. He was a funny guy, but he also was adopted and looked different. He was sort of brown-skinned and had a fledgling mustache in middle school. Our French teacher, Ms. Peltekis, who was crazy hot and probably 25 years old or something, was constantly calling him out and ridiculing him for not being good at French. One day I was in study hall with Eric and he seemed down, and I asked him, what’s up man? I remember he wrote on a piece of paper “To Live is to Die, so Why Live?” Sticks in memory in part because this is the name of the Metallica tribute to their dead bass player Cliff Burton, which would not be released for another couple years.

The next morning in home room, Mr ___ came in looking somber. He told us to settle down and then said, he was sad to inform us, that yesterday, Eric Miller took his own life. I have memory of him mentioning the shotgun but that cannot be accurate.

I remember later that week seeing some of the “popular” kids who were are most frequent tormentors sitting around and laughing. It felt so out of place with the mood I and my friends felt. I remember feeling, that the sense that all the relentless bullying was supposed to convey “go away, you’re not wanted, kill yourself loser…” felt so real. It felt like they had successfully removed a weakling from the herd.

I didn’t tell my mom about Eric. I didn’t in general tell her about my friends. Also since I was a new kid and had never met his parents, I was maybe his only friend not invited to the funeral. I’ve never been to a funeral actually.

Around this time I remember a big fight with my mom in which she yelled at me and said “It’s no wonder you don’t have any friends!! You’re such an asshole!!!”

So Needham was not a good change in my life. And it further deadened my sense that having a high intelligence had any intrinsic value. If I’m going to be bullied for it and, to best of my memory, no one ever looked at my report cards, then why am I supposed to work hard at showing people how smart I am? Apparently to be well-liked and popular one must be a) pretty stupid, b) nasty a brutal to misfits, and c) be born into affluence. This was somewhat my take. Note that “affluence” was my unexamined unprocessed concept of kids with big houses and families who loved them and cakewalk lives like white bread Needham seemed like. It would be many years before I was more able to examine what I came from, though to this day I despise privilege and can detect it in an instant.

I’ll intrude on myself to comment, it is difficult to stay on compartmentalized topics. I see how hard it is not to tell the story as it unfolded, and likewise how hard to not expand on topics like bullying, suicide, abuse, when trying to write about having high intelligence. I feel grateful for patient readers willing to go the distance, and I suppose I ought to be glad to putting out pages after so long not being able to write. Remind myself: you intend to edit all this down for coherency and public consumption eventually… I also wonder if I’m conveying the intended premise effectively. That and I wonder if this writing is decently engaging. It feels not so much. But I’ll continue…

I realize one thing happening for me is I’m hearing the voices (not literally) of a lifetime of people essentially saying “oh, you think you’re so smart?” and I’m inhibited from really getting into what it has been like being, yes, so smart. As a result I’m soft-balling it with objective facts like getting As or being in the gifted program.

Okay here’s a weird memory.

When I was 11 I said some strange things to my parents. One day I said to my mom, and I think this is basically verbatim: “I don’t think I understand capitalism. If my understanding of capitalism and democracy were correct, I don’t get why you wouldn’t expect to see bigger and bigger piles of money in fewer and fewer hands, until they so corrupt the Constitution and rule of law that the Republic collapses and we see the rise of China as the new world superpower. ?”

Later that same year, with dad in Georgia, this came out of my mouth: “Dad, if you could absorb all the pain and suffering, physical, emotional, and mental, of ALL sentient beings in the universe, for all time, and this would mean that you would be in eternal agony and torment, but that the rest of the universe would never know suffering, would you do it?”

I don’t recall my mom’s response, but I do remember my dad’s. “What?” End of discussion.

So that was me at 11.

Anyway, moving on. In 1986 I entered high school. School #8 for those keeping score. Though I moved up with my classmates from Pollard, I began to isolate a lot. I remember my freshman year having almost a blissful feeling that I was actually invisible! Wandering halls without being tortured and teased. The secret was just don’t interact with anyone! Another new trend was skipping classes or even skipping a full day of school. Sometimes I’d show up, hang out in the cafeteria all day, and duck to avoid teachers noticing that I was actually in the school building. My classes were largely the advanced placement (AP) ones, so I was becoming an anomaly in a new way, where my classmates were undoubtedly working hard and applying themselves while I drifted. I still got the As though, so no reason for concern, adults, nothing to see here.

This post is long enough. To be continued.