I was a bad student. Actually, let me rephrase that. I was a really #@%!ing bad student. But it wasn't my fault.
Okay, maybe it was a little.
I was always my brother's little brother. Gavin is really smart, which in school was both a blessing and a curse. Back in the days before political correctness, 7th grade at our elementary school was run on a block system: 5, 7, 6, and 8. Block 5 kids were the Wyle E. Coyotes of the bunch; block 8, the blockheads.
My brother was a block 5 three years before me, so by the time I got there, they just assumed genetics was in play, and that's where I started the year. For good measure, I was even asked to be a part of a group that had extra enrichment learning on Mondays. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a little too good about myself.
It took approximately two months to get bumped down to block 7. My grades weren't horrendous at all. It's just that to be a block 5 kid, they had to be straight A's, which mine were definitely not. I think my parents were slightly soul crushed... and deep down, for the first time in my life, I was as well.
I went to each of my teachers and asked what I would have to do to get back to block 5. If I could bring my cumulative average back up to A's before the end of the year, I could move back up. It would not be easy.
For starters, the 5 kids were doing different math, harder math than the 7 kids. Because I was in 7 but wanted to move back to 5, I did both. In fact, anything that the 5 kids did differently than the 7 kids was added to my curriculum. I even took Spanish after school. The workload bordered on the ridiculous.
But the ridiculous paid off. By a week left to go in the 3rd quarter, I was back to all A's and one B+, just 2 points from my goal and climbing. I went back to my homeroom teacher to tell her my progress. Her response:
"Well, there's only one quarter left. Let's just keep you at 7, and you'll move up next year."
I stood at her desk and welled up. Before she could ask me what was wrong, I turned around and slowly walked back to my desk. The moment my butt hit the seat, I quit school.
I all but phoned-in my last two months. My grades plummeted. I actually stopped doing homework.
But that was just the beginning. I had adopted so many bad habits that it carried over through my entire high school career. By the time I actually started caring again, senior year, it was too late to salvage my cumulative GPA. I graduated (somehow) in the bottom three in my class. Not three percent; three people.
At that point, the Wanda Trussler School of Beauty wouldn't have taken me as a student, so I worked for my girlfriend's mom as a courier driver. It was easy, the money was okay, you worked when you wanted, and there was no school... thank God. For a while, I was resigned to live my life as the idiot I thought I was. Until...
... one Sunday morning at 4am in 1995. I was working the graveyard shift at the radio station. My regular job was doing sports reporting and assistant producing for the Steve and DC Morning Show from Monday through Friday. The job was a blast, but the pay was lousy. To help augment it, management let me push buttons for a few shekels in the wee hours of Sunday mornings.
Our "hotline" rang. My ass tightened. Not a half hour prior, our overnight guy... who was broadcasting live from a drunken dance club across the river... pushed a microphone into the face of some guy who was fifty shades of plastered.
"Having fun, dude?" asked the DJ.
"%$@^ yeah, man!" screamed the drunk.
"Whoa! You can't cuss, dude!" (as he laughed). "We're in delay, right?" he asked to no one in particular.
No, as a matter of fact.
I picked up the phone. "Hello?"
My mother used to doze to the radio from 1:30am until 7am... just in case she might here my voice on the air.
"What can I do for you, mama?" I asked.
"How would you like to take a Mensa test later today?" she asked.
"Well okay, your brother will just have to take it by himself, I guess," she parried her well placed retort.
My mother is a smart one; she knew that I would take it if my brother was taking it, playing on our sibling rivalry. What I didn't know is that three hours after that phone call, she would call my brother asking him the same thing. And when he gave the same answer as I did, she used the exact same dagger-shot... producing the exact same result.
So Gavin and I (and our friend Chris, whom we rooked into going with us) showed up at the downtown hotel where they were administering the test. It was a bad sign when we arrived to find a lot of beyond intelligent quantum physics types. I had nothing to eat or drink all day, and the only refreshments they had were cheese cubes and crackers.
I downed a plate of electric-yellow cheddar and about twenty crackers. As I gagged on the crumbs, I looked for a coke, to no avail. Nor was there any bottled water. Red wine, on the other hand, was plentiful.
Four cups and twenty minutes later, I looked down at the first page of the test in horror. I leaned over to my brother.
"I... am effing hammered," I whispered.
Gavin's audible laughter filled the meeting room where part one of the three part test was being administered. Everyone gaped at the shit show. I gave them the stink eye back.
To actually make it into Mensa, you had to rock a 99% on just one of the three parts. I could not have piloted a big wheel at that point, so passing was not on my radar.
Which is why I was so shocked when I got the acceptance letter five weeks later, as did my brother and friend, too. I almost wrote the organization back saying, "There must be some mistake," but I thought better of it.
Even still, I was prone to sheer idiocy at a moments notice, and for extended periods. Honestly, I thought I lucked out on the test, and that my real IQ was more akin to my scholastic career. I never went to college, never got a degree. When I wanted to get into radio, I went to trade school. Film, same thing. I never felt the fall air walking to class at a true institution of higher learning. I never questioned a professor, or had a teacher you could actually call a professor, or took class on fourteenth century unintelligible poetry. I always felt that I somehow missed out.
Which is why it's so shocking that I'm on an airplane as I write this. A few months ago, my dear friend Sarah reached out to me. She had a presentation at Stanford Medicine X last year, and they asked her to reapply for a spot again this year. What I didn't know was that she had put forth the idea of a panel discussion...
... and had offered my name as part of it.
She and I and our mutual friend Courtney put together the abstract on "The Language of Cancer," of which all three of us are survivors. The Medicine X folks read it, liked it, and we will present it on Sunday morning, along with two more of the finest minds I've ever conversed with.
I might have sharted a tick when I was told the news, and I was exceptionally worried about being a part of the panel. We're going to speaking to physicians and academics and people with more letters after their names than are actually in their names.
Lets face it... on paper, I have no business here.
But thankfully, life isn't lived on paper. While I may have forgotten the Pythagorean Theorem, or the collective works of James Joyce, or the best scientific method on how to bong a beer, the one thing I do have is my life experience. I spoke on the phone with the other four people involved with our panel last week, and when we finally took a breath from our amazing, touching, in-depth conversation, it was two minutes longer than we're being given to speak.
We didn't even get to everything we wanted to talk about.
My friend Doug likes to say, "Dan, I don't have much, but I got words." I will be thinking of that probably every second until our panel discussion and question session is over on Sunday morning. For maybe the first time in my life, I know what I have to offer, and what I have to offer is me, and my experience, and my sheer joy for talking about what little I know in hopes that it will make a difference.
I just hope they don't ask to see my transcript before we go on. Otherwise, it's going to be an awfully long flight home.
Dan Duffy is a husband, dad, video producer, blogger, accidental activist, and author of The Half Book: He's Taking His Ball and Going Home.
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