This is just one of many True Story interviews, in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is Marissa’s story.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
My dad left college to attend pilot training for the Air National Guard, and my mom left college after one semester to work full-time while Dad went to school and pilot training. Dad later received his BS in business management by attending night classes. Dad was a fighter pilot with the Guard and a corporate pilot, and Mom was a “stay at home” mother for many years before going to work as the Deputy Clerk Treasurer for our town. She also runs her own embroidery business
Dad was always really good with math and sciences, and Mom was always really good with accounting and finances. I’ve always thought both of them were incredibly smart, though I’m sure they’d demur to that description. I have two younger brothers, both of whom are exceptionally intelligent.
Do you even remember noticing that you learned things more quickly than others? How did you find school?
My first memories of school are of it being momentarily interesting, and then frustratingly boring, then momentarily interesting again, then frustratingly boring again. I always loved learning new things, but I wanted the pace of the learning to be exponentially faster than it was. I got bored very easily by class, because I picked things up quickly and didn’t understand why we couldn’t move on to something new as soon as I understood something. At that age, I didn’t realize that I was learning any faster than others–I just didn’t understand why class moved so slowly.
As I got older, I realized that school came much more easily to me than it did for others. It wasn’t until law school, though, that it finally sunk in just how much easier school was for me than others. When I was in those classes with other incredibly smart people and the class pace still felt agonizingly slow, the subjects still came easily, and I still didn’t need to study–it was then that I finally understood that the learning experience for me was just fundamentally different than it was for most others. I guess I knew that before, but it didn’t really sink in until law school.
When did you get tested? How did the people in your life react to your IQ score? Did it change anything?
The first testing happened when I was around 6 years old. I was already finding school frustratingly boring, and my mom kept asking the teachers and principal to consider letting me participate in the school’s Gifted & Talented program. The problem was that the program was only for students in the 5th grade–I was in Kindergarten. The principal kept telling my mom that she was “just another proud mother” and there actually was “no such thing” as a gifted child (apparently he was not a supporter of the G&T program).
In the hopes of disproving his theory and demonstrating that I was intellectually capable of keeping pace with the students in the G&T program, my parents had me tested. The test did not give a specific three-digit number at the end, but instead placed the subject into one of a series of IQ ranges. My test results were the highest the testers had seen, and fell significantly outside the upper-limit IQ range on the test.
The test results indicated that I could be moved up to the 5th or 6th grade immediately. However, recognizing the social challenges that would arise by placing a Kindergarten-age student into a middle school class, my parents opted to leave me in my grade, but continue petitioning for advanced programs for me. (They were wise–I’ve always been grateful that they foresaw the social challenges that would have created. It was hard enough to be “the really smart kid” in class without the significant age gap.)
They succeeded in their quest. I was enrolled in a special reading program and allowed to participate in the G&T program. From then forward, I always participated in some advanced classes–e.g., skipping a recess to go to an upper grade’s reading and spelling class in elementary school, designing my own spelling curriculum in middle school, taking college math classes during my study hall in high school. One of the teachers at my high school created a special curriculum for me so that I could take multiple AP English classes on a condensed schedule in my freshman year. I eventually skipped my junior year of high school and graduated early.
My parents didn’t make a big deal of my IQ (except with the principal and teachers, for the sake of helping me get the academic environment I needed). I’m not sure whether they told my grandparents or aunts and uncles. They didn’t even tell me until many years later. My folks were very cautious to not make my IQ my sole defining characteristic. They saw it as a tool for helping carve out an academic path that would fit me better than the standard one in school, but not as anything that needed to be widely-known… which is another way in which I think they handled the whole thing with a lot of wisdom.
Are there certain things that aren’t easy for you to learn? How does that make you feel?
Spacial reasoning has always been a struggle, and I’ve always been downright befuddled by directions. The only test I ever failed was on using maps to navigate. I have a great memory, so I have to learn directions purely by memorization, not by understanding the spacial orientation of the streets and town (even though I’ve lived here all my life).
I have gotten better with directions as I’ve gotten older, but it’s largely because I’ve learned to basically memorize all of the cross-streets, the street signs, the landmarks… I can’t understand it all in spacial relation to everything else, but I can memorize it. It’s a bit like not having your landscape in 3D, but being able to memorize all of the 2D aspects of it well enough to construct how to access them in a 3D world. I’m not sure if that makes sense. It’s tough to describe!
Have you ever felt burdened by the knowledge that you have a really high IQ?
Only occasionally. In general, I’m just really appreciative and grateful that learning things happens as easily as it does. Once in a while I’ll encounter something–like not being able to find the right piece of code to make a webpage display how I want, or not being able to master Quickbooks in fifteen minutes–and I’ll think, “Well, a fat lot of good the smarts are doing me now!” But that’s generally just tongue-in-cheek.
The only time it really felt burdensome was in elementary, junior high and high school. The bullying–for being the “smart” kid–was brutal. It felt burdensome because it made me different, and it made me a target, when I very much just wanted to fit in. But outside of that, and ever since then, it’s been like a really cool bonus that I somehow got lucky enough to have, and I’m just grateful for it.
Are there any drawbacks to being so intelligent?
The social aspect of school (see above). The bullying was just awful, and unrelenting. That was the one truly terrible part about it. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
Other than that, the only “drawbacks” I can think of are minor, like not being able to find in-person classes that move fast enough. For example, I signed up for some adult education foreign language courses at the local college only to find that I could finish up the entire course in the span of one class meeting–those classes are even more slowly-paced than regular academic courses. I love learning–I positively crave it–but finding courses that move at my speed is nearly impossible. Fortunately, the internet makes so much information accessible that I can access courses and books and resources on almost any subject and learn it at my own pace. I wish there were more fast-paced, in-person classes I could take, but that’s a minor drawback, all things considered.
What advice would you give to others who have really high IQs and are currently in the education system?
Ask for and actively pursue an academic environment that fits you. Be willing to work with the educators and administrators and be open to compromise–after all, they’re working within limits of time, personnel and budget–but don’t be passive, and don’t let school hold you back or stifle your learning.
Also, remember to always consider the situation holistically, weighing the benefits and challenges on the academic front as well as the social and emotional fronts. It all matters, and favoring one to the exclusion of the others usually creates more problems than it solves. You’re always more than just your IQ!
Do any of you have an especially high IQ? Any questions for Marissa?