I always knew I was something special.
You’re not supposed to say that, but I’m saying it. You’re supposed to pretend you don’t know how smart you are, pretend people are just being too kind, pretend you’re just average. Even when you know that’s a big fat bald faced lie.
I started reading at the age of three, and I was indiscriminate about what I read. At first, it was every children’s book, then every chapter book, then every novel, until I read every book we owned written for young adults, children or teens. My father had an expansive collection of old religious and historical books, so I picked at them, slowly working my way through the ones that were least dry and dull. Granted, I didn’t always grasp it all, but I tried. The library became my favorite place. Before age ten, I began taking home mountains of books, and I would have them all read in the next three or four days. While my parents ooohed and ahhhed over my reading speed, my friends’ parents disbelieved the stories they were told about my skills. When I started middle school, I was the teacher’s pet, the top of the class, drawing maps of the world freehand and learning Latin rapidly. By high school, I could read ancient Latin texts like the Vulgate and for my sophomore year Final in History I wrote an Essay on Pre-World War II Economics and how they contributed to the rise of Hitler.
My teacher wanted to publish it. He said I was exceptionally bright.
But I knew that.
I wasn’t trying to be an overachiever, I just was one. It just sort of came to me as if I absorbed facts and information through my skin.
I was supposed to be the kid mostly likely to succeed in my high school class, not the one who would wake up a year after graduation in an abusive relationship, eating off starvation wages, living in the cheap side of town with gangs and people carried out in body bags every now and again, drug overdose or drug deal gone wrong, always something to do with drugs.
But I didn’t have anything to do with drugs. I never had the mind to lose control, I was always too dismissive of good trips and bad trips and highs to ever really join the ride.
I knew a lot about the lows, though. I knew a lot about feeling like the definition of wasted potential, working sixty hour work weeks at warehouses and restaurants just to pay the bills while my mind rusted inside out. There’s something scalding to the touch about trying to remember Latin words and grammar when you only have the brain space to remember which costs to pay this week and how much money you can make if you just stay a few hours later for the overtime. When your mind is full of calculations, and you’re trying to decide if you’ve gone crazy or if your partner is lying to you about things you know you should remember but don’t, there’s little left for academics.
I always knew I was something special.
As it turned out, though, special only goes so far. If you’re lucky enough to be a talented child with parents whose coattails are long enough to ride on, maybe you end up like one of these tech entrepreneurs making billions. If there are no coattails, maybe talent is a curse more than a blessing. There’s something galling about serving rich men in suits while they talk about Stalin and the Cold War, knowing that everything they say is contextually wrong and out of order and if you could only pull that old gray copy of Russia: A History that you read through and through in high school you could tell them that Stalin didn’t kill his wife, she killed herself in protest, and Lenin wasn’t “just like Hitler,” not even close.
Sometimes a feeling of choking filled my nineteen-year-old lungs when I would walk home on the cold nights on the dark streets and hear people on the news talk about how great it is that talented people get scholarships because everyone knows that low-income students who are really gifted will always somehow find a way to the polished halls of academia. If they don’t, well, maybe they weren’t really all that smart.
But I am smart, I would say to myself. I am smart, and I am a quick learner.
But not quick enough, I guess. If you’re so clever, you could find a way, and you haven’t found one.
I face the mirror in the five AM darkness every morning, starting to wonder if I am losing my mind or if I have ever had one. I think I am delusional, overestimating my own intellect and abilities. My teachers were lying. I am not smart, I am not clever, I am that word that haunts my dreams, I am that word that hurts like taking glass out of skin, I am that word that I don’t let myself think.
I am average. I am not special, I am not smart, I am average.
It feels like a death sentence.
If I am average, this will be my life. I will work, I will live paycheck to paycheck like my parents did before me. I will live in old houses and wear old clothing and drive old cars. I will find another average person and marry them and we will have average children, and we will die average deaths, and I will never write award winning research articles or have a Ph.d like I told my father I would when I was twelve.
But if I am so average, I can’t figure out why I am discontent with this.
Another alternative, worse than the first, presents itself to me when I am not alert enough to avoid it: perhaps once I was smart, special, clever. And perhaps now, I am not. Perhaps now, I am as stupid as a box of rocks.
It twists my stomach the way my mother wrings out dishrags.
This is the last misery of unfulfilled potential: getting to look over the garden wall, but never able to climb over.
In my dreams, everyone I’ve ever known laughs at me for thinking I was ever smart.
I ditch the abusive boyfriend, finally. I move, I try to start over.
I feel like my mind is fragmenting.
The doctor is worried I am in the onset of a serious mental illness, so they send me to a neuropsychologist for nine hours of testing. I am not extremely mentally ill.
My IQ is 145.
The neuropsychologist tells me I am very smart, that he’s enjoyed working with me, that I am a genius at language, even if I score in the twentieth percentile for math.
I don’t know whether to believe him.
He says I am autistic, that I don’t process things like other people, that my frontal lobe is underdeveloped and affecting my visual memory.
This I can believe, but it doesn’t help.
In the warehouse, I do the same jobs I have always done, over and over, and my brain feels mushy, and I want to scream because everything is so loud and nothing here matters. It’s becoming unbearable. I talk to a therapist, and she sends me to Vocational Rehabilitation Services. She says my autism is contributing to my inability to maintain my jobs. I think she is right, but I’m skeptical that these people can do anything.
I don’t even really know what they do or how they can help.
But the bright lights and loud sounds in the warehouse are killing me slowly, so I go. They ask me what job I think I would like to have, one I could do well, one I would be able to hold down.
I realize I don’t know. My adult life has been about money and survival. My brain feels like a concrete block.
They throw out suggestions and I agree to talk to people who work in various fields. Nothing really clicks, but I discover a lot about myself.
I am not empathetic enough to be an EMT.
I am not psychologically capable of being a cop.
I am unfit for office work because getting along with most people isn’t in the cards.
Not sales, not tech, not science, not teaching. We all agree nothing heavy on mathematics will work.
I think about my interests, past and present, my fascination with words and the way they come to be. My fixation on languages and their impact on society. I think about what might make my brain feel like it’s not made of bricks.
That’s how we come up with the idea of a translator, and then we broaden it to Linguistics in general.
“I love the idea,” I tell them, “but I have to go to school for that, and I can’t pay.”
“We can help you with that.”
And they did. The day I got accepted to University felt unreal, and by that I mean, I did not feel real.
I mean, my brain still felt like there were cobwebs taking over. I’m not special, I’m not smart, not anymore, if I ever was. What if they find out?
But it’s not merit based. I didn’t get help because I am an undiscovered genius.
Yes, you are special, people would tease me as a kid...you’re special needs! Hahaha.
But I always knew that.
You’re not supposed to say you’re something special, genius, or smart, and you’re not supposed to say you’re special needs either, unless you want to be a joke, but I’m saying it, I’m saying both, and I think they’re both true.
I always knew I was something special.