Genetics, Spotlight

I Am Not a Blank Page

As a young child, I remember being told “You can be anything you want to be if you’re prepared to work hard enough.” I remember feeling inspired by these words. It was empowering to believe that my destiny was mine to choose and that my fate rested in my own hands. But, at the same time, I also remember experiencing a strong sense of shame, because I felt I was failing at everything and letting down everyone who loved me.

This was because I was underperforming significantly in grade school. In fact, I was far enough behind the pack that by the beginning of grade three, I was in danger of being streamed into the “basic” program. If my fate was truly in my own hands, as I wanted to believe it was, then my failure was my fault and mine alone. Presumably, I had the ability to turn things around, but I didn’t know how.

My mother, on the advice of the school psychologist, paid a small fortune to have me undergo detailed and comprehensive psychometric testing by a respected specialist in Toronto, where I grew up. This specialist diagnosed me with moderate dyslexia, severe ADD, and an uncommonly debilitating condition she referred to as “motor sequencing disorder.” Taken together, these disabilities explained my slow reading, wavering focus, and incontrovertibly disastrous written work.

Perhaps paradoxically, I remember feeling a sense of unmitigated relief as these results were explained to me. My failure in school wasn’t my fault, at least not entirely. Without being able to put it into words, I understood that whatever was wrong me was manifest on a neurological level and that my inability to keep up with my peers academically did not, contrary to what I was told on a daily basis, result from my own moral weakness. That was galvanizing. However much abuse I took from my grade three teacher (and back in those days abuse could border on physical), I knew inside myself that at least I had an excuse.

But there was a fly in that ointment. Somehow, inexplicably, in spite of all my disabilities, the psychologist also assessed my overall intelligence as being in the “superior to very superior” range. I should say up front that I was skeptical of this finding. At the age of eight—and having only recently gleaned “the truth” about Santa Claus—I was aware that grown-ups were capable of elaborate deceptions and I surmised that the whole matter was merely a ploy by my well-meaning mother to bolster my sagging confidence. However, if it was true, I was back to square one. If I was so superior, why couldn’t I pull it all together in school?

My so-called “superior” eight-year-old brain came up with an answer that proved as productive as it was satisfying; my aptitudes were starkly asymmetrical (or, in the words of a kid in grade school, I was naturally good at some things and naturally bad at others). This answer was satisfying because it gave me permission not to succeed at everything, and it was productive because it motivated me to apply myself where my effort seemed to make a difference.

Fast-forward to grade 12 and I found myself with marks that would have put me on the honor role. But I was failing math abysmally. This was uniquely unfortunate, because at the time I was fascinated with aviation—some would say obsessed—and I wanted more than anything to work in the field, preferably not as a baggage handler. I knew I had to pull up my socks, but again, I didn’t know how. All I knew was that the disabilities I’d been diagnosed with years before were grievously subverting my efforts at learning.

One day, my math teacher, Ms. Chu, asked me to see her after class in her office, where she presented me with my mark on the most recent test, which was 3 percent (that number is not missing a digit). I’d assumed I’d done poorly, as always, but my grade was a shock even to me. Worse, listening to Ms. Chu admonish me for “not trying hard enough” was excruciating, because I was certain my failure was not for lack of effort. I explained that I puzzled over algebra and graphs for hours every day, but she didn’t buy it.

“There is a linear relationship between effort and achievement,” she said. “If you were putting in the effort, you’d get the results.” By then, I was sick to death of hearing this, which was really just a variation on “You can be anything you want to be if you’re prepared to work hard enough.” Yet, miffed as I was, on a very deep level I yearned for this to be true. Every day, I could feel my dream of being a pilot slipping further out of my grasp and the only way I could ever hope to achieve it would be if, somehow, effort could make up for a dearth of aptitude. So, I applied myself like I’d never applied myself to anything before. But slogging away for three to five hours or more every day on one math course alone, I was still failing so badly that passing the course was not even a remote possibility. Worse, my other subjects were suffering too.

The response of my parents, teachers, guidance counsellors, and every adult who had influence over my life was to pressure me to double down and work harder. And my response was to take that pressure to heart. I worked and worked and worked until one day I just broke. With tears of frustration in my eyes, I got up from the desk in my tiny bedroom, descended the stairs to the basement and extracted my dad’s prized Winchester ‘94 carbine from his gun cabinet. Loading it with a single bullet, I worked the lever and placed the muzzle under my chin. My thumb hovering over the trigger, I closed my eyes, inhaled the musty gloom of the dark storage room and prepared myself for whatever the next world had in store.

Then, inexplicably, a random vision popped into my head. It was just a flicker, but it was enough to make me pause. It was a memory of a race I’d run in gym class weeks earlier. I saw my friend Raoul—a tall, muscular Jamaican—running so far ahead of the pack that the real contest was for second place. In the corner of my eye, I also just barely glimpsed Stephen, maybe a half pace behind me on the left. Suddenly, the race was over and I’d placed a respectable seventh, out of 31 students, with Stephen at number eight.

I wasn’t sure why just yet, but a feeling of relief swept over me, not unlike the feeling I’d experienced in grade three when the psychologist explained the results of my testing. I set down the still-loaded rifle and allowed myself to sink to the floor. After a few moments of bewildered contemplation, it became clear what the vision meant and why it had affected me so profoundly.

You see, my thin, fine-boned and extremely athletic Scandinavian classmate Stephen never won a sprint. He could dominate an intramural 10 kilometer cross-country race without breaking a sweat, but he never once prevailed in a sprint, even in gym class. Raoul on the other hand was uncontested in the 100 meter dash. In fact, he consistently finished so far ahead of the pack that he’d tease the rest of us by pretending to run in slow motion as he crossed the finish line. Yet Raoul would practically collapse after the first half-kilometer on days when did our cross-country runs.

Raoul had no real interest in competitive sports, but Stephen did and in the future he went on to win medals at the provincial level. What made me put down the gun, I realized, was the epiphany that the relative success Stephen and Raoul enjoyed in different contests arose more from their respective physical body types than from any aspect of their training. Certainly, if he’d cared to do so, Raoul could have improved his endurance and, if he’d put his mind to it, Stephen could have run incrementally faster and possibly placed ahead of me. But Stephen would never have beaten Raoul in the sprint. What’s more, investing more than the cursory efforts required by gym class into sprinting would have cost him his edge in cross country. Stephen knew this, so he focused on his strengths and he succeeded.

The next day, I marched into the guidance office and dropped math, knowing full well that my dream of flying airplanes for a living was finished. My teachers worked hard to get me to reconsider and my mother tried every trick in the parental playbook to coerce me into sticking with math, but I refused. The following year I pulled off grades approaching straight 90s in non-math subjects, got into a top-rated university and the rest, as they say, is history.

The moral of the story is this: effort is no substitute for aptitude and (I’m sorry if this hurts) we can’t always be whatever we want to be. In the argument between Nature and Nurture, Nature may not have the last word, but it’s got an awfully loud voice. If anyone you love ever reaches the low point that I did, please don’t reflexively “inspire” them by insisting they can overcome any obstacle with enough effort. If I’d heard that one more time I’m sure I’d have pulled the trigger. Instead, help them come to terms with their weaknesses. This is not limiting. It’s emancipating because it will help them start working toward goals they have a meaningful chance of reaching.

You might be wondering how my life ended up. I’ve been a news cameraman and a documentary producer and I’ve traveled the world as an English teacher, scuba instructor, and professional photographer, helping and interacting with others in ways that I’d never have discovered had I insisted on seeing myself as a blank page onto which I could write whatever I thought I (or others) wanted. We are not blank pages, we do not have equal aptitudes, and to pretend that we do is to condemn the Stephens of this world to a life of running hopeless sprints against legions of Raouls. Don’t do that to people you love.

 

The author is a freelance photographer, published fiction author, and educator who lives with his wife and two cats on a sub-tropical island in the Asian Pacific. “Cameron Sage” is a pseudonym. 

83 Comments

  1. M. D. says

    Struck a chord with me, Cameron. I had a similar breakdown for similar reasons when crunch-time came during my highschool years, but with no follow-up epiphany. At least, not one as consequential and positive as yours. My revelatory experience of the truth you put so succintcly has been drawn out over my young adulthood. Perhaps too little too late, but certainly better late than never.

    Thank you for this piece. I hope you continue to write and share your experiences and thoughts, pseudonymously or otherwise.

  2. A C Harper says

    I imagine there will be pushback from those who believe in’ blank slates’ because the alternative is that *a few* people will always be inadequate. There will be a few(?) criminals that cannot change or be rehabilitated. There will be a few(?) people that cannot maintain satisfactory relationships. Or employment. And so on.

    What to do about that is a different question.

    • martti_s says

      There was a cruel and sad experiment carried out in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
      A group of underachievers, tastelessly nicknamed ans the ‘McNamara’s Morons’ were subjected to military training and front-line action. Their mortality was more than 3 times higher than the ‘normal’ expected. See the video here and realize what a bunch of creeps were running the foreign politics of the U.S. those times.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_J2VwFDV4-g

  3. E. Olson says

    Good story. From my personal experience as someone who always struggled with higher level math and statistics, I have always thought that a large part of the problem were the math and stats teachers who invariably had always had an easy time understanding their topic and found it fascinating. This almost always made them terrible teachers for anyone not similarly gifted and fascinated by mathematical proofs with elaborate formulas full of strange symbols and a focus on solving abstract problems with hand calculations (be sure to show your work). I always wondered why we couldn’t be told how any of this algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus, differential equations, structural equation models, etc. was actually used to solve practical problems by pilots, navigators, engineers, architects, market researchers, financial analysts or anyone else besides apparently math teachers. In other words, it would have helped to actually see the point of all this torture that was dragging down my GPA. I could say the same about much language instruction, where the focus always seemed to be on identifying every word in a sentence as a verb, noun, adverb, participle, etc. and the tenses and other structural elements rather than just learning by doing in fun and practical assignments. At least we did get to read some great literature, and it was reassuring to hear stories that prolific writers such as Earnest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt were terrible spellers just like me, but apparently the fun part of language learning has now been largely replaced by readings to illustrate social justice concepts rather than offer inspiring works that demonstrate the fun, power and importance of the written word. Thus the common problem in many subjects is that they are so often taught by people passionate about the minutia and abstract, which is seldom shared by the vast majority of their students who just want to pass and perhaps learn something useful or fun.

    • John McCormick says

      @E. Olsen,

      The fact is that in the US at least, the people who have the title “math teacher” are generally unfamiliar with mathematics. They are just people who have been trained to proffer curriculum and have the solution manual. Even when people do have actual college degrees in math (not “educational mathematics” or “mathematics education” or some other confabulation invented by the academic schooling community), as you imply, they haven’t a clue as to how others might misunderstand the material.

      Math is not taught in any K-12 school in the US. Period. Full stop. Students are subjected to isolated examples of computation posed as puzzles. A student’s ability to solve these puzzles is used to stratify them into categories for the purposes of determining employment and a place in society and nothing more. While there is some correlation between the ability to solve these puzzles and mathematical ability, many who are told they are “good in math” don’t pursue actual mathematics because it requires persistence not mere cleverness, and some who show actual mathematical ability are pushed out by the unremitting boredom or by the clock and calendar.

      • E. Olson says

        Perhaps my comments reflect a now out-of-date personal experience, but I certainly remember higher level math course offerings in jr. high, high school, and college (I suffered through several) taught by math majors who loved equations and proofs, but were not much into practical application. In fact I only had one statistics course at the undergrad level that was taught be someone with application in mind, but then again he was a very successful marketing research and polling consultant.

    • Nate D. says

      @ E. Olson

      Your post touches on my experience. I went through high school convinced I was bad at math. I barely passed chemistry and algebra 2 my junior year (My chemistry teacher told me I had actually failed, but he rounded my grade up slightly so I could pass. He said he did this because, a) I transferred into his class mid term, thus missing some of his foundational material; and b) because he saw that I’d been studying my ass off.). I was so afraid of math that I didn’t take any my senior year.

      My freshman year of college I was required to take a math class. I took something very basic, something like, Intro to College Math. The teacher was amazing. He explained everything in such a way that it suddenly made perfect sense to me. He presented information in a way that my brain readily accepted it. Light bulbs were popping on everywhere. All the sudden math wasn’t so scary.

      I realized that, for me, having the right teacher was paramount. By the time I got to higher level math classes, the YouTube era was in full swing, and there was a plethora of math tutors posting lessons there. If my professors weren’t making sense, I remained calm, then went to my favorite tutors on YouTube that evening to see how they explained certain equations. Invariably they’d explain it in a way I could understand, and I’d go on to ace my exams.

      I’m no gifted math wiz – that’s for sure – but thanks to that professor, I never struggled in math again. That experience taught me a lot about myself and the learning process.

    • D-Rex says

      And now the boffins in our South Australian education department have decided in their infinite wisdom to make subjects like Ag science, P.E. and Tech studies more academic for senior school. Less woodwork, more writing, less learning how to drive tractors, more theory. I think we know who the real morons are.

    • Matthew says

      “a large part of the problem were the math and stats teachers who invariably had always had an easy time understanding their topic and found it fascinating.”

      I agree with John McCormick too. Math isn’t taught.

      Part of the problem is that the people teaching it at the primary level don’t understand it or care for it, for the most part.

      Part of the problem is that there is almost never a confluence of content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and pedagogical knowledge. This is what these teachers you mention are missing: they have great content knowledge and zero pedagogical content knowledge (how novice learners understand the content, what mistakes they will typically make, and how to correct those mistakes in a way that will make sense to novice learners, not experts).

      Part of the problem is that the direction of the math curricula (aimed at calculus) is laughably outdated and irrelevant. (Not saying that of calculus, just of the idea that calculus should be the endpoint of a general mathematics education offered to the public at large; in today’s world, the endpoint should be understanding how to interpret and use data instead.)

  4. “My failure in school wasn’t my fault, at least not entirely.”

    You don’t have full control over your actions?

    “In the argument between Nature and Nurture, Nature may not have the last word, but it’s got an awfully loud voice”

    Nature vs nurture is a false dichotomy.

    Your racing analogy isn’t apt; genes cause physical traits, and by virtue of causing physical traits they cannot cause mental traits.

    Thinking is irreducible to the brain.

    • martti_s says

      Sailing is irreducible to the boat. Or the crew. Or the ocean.
      Deep.
      Thinking is a process that happens in the medium of the brain.
      Can a process ever be reduced to its medium?
      Negative. Faulty logic.

    • Race Realist, I don’t understand what you are saying: “By virtue of causing physical traits they cannot cause mental traits.” This sentence doesn’t make sense (talk about a false dichotomy). Many genes, illnesses, and injuries and experiences impact both body and brain. And brain is physical. Or do you deny that? Just because thinking is irreducible to the brain (and actually that’s also debatable as there are clusters of nerves that may impact thinking that are located in the gut)–just because thinking is irreducible to the brain doesn’t mean the brain cannot be made differently for different people. The author wasn’t saying don’t push yourself. He was saying that we all come with baseline skills and aptitudes and therefore cannot have equal outcomes through will power. He wasn’t arguing against will power.

      • It’s not a false dichotomy. Conceptual arguments disprove the notion that psychological traits are heritable. Thinking is irreducible to physical states and functions of physical states. See Ross’s Immaterial Aspects of Thought

    • Ken Phelps says

      “You don’t have full control over your actions? ”

      Do you think that the kids who are doing calculus when they’re six are just harder workers? Do you think the reason you weren’t playing the violin at the age of four is because you didn’t get lessons?

      “Nature vs nurture is a false dichotomy.”

      By painting the nature vs. nurture struggle as a balance between voices, the author clearly understands that it is not an either/or dichotomy. Nice straw man.

      “…genes cause physical traits, and by virtue of causing physical traits they cannot cause mental traits.”

      So in your world, thinking doesn’t have a physical basis in the brain? Good grief.

      • “Do you think that the kids who are doing calculus when they’re six are just harder workers? Do you think the reason you weren’t playing the violin at the age of four is because you didn’t get lessons?”

        Is it reducible to the physical? You can make assertions like this, such as “X did Y without doing Z, therefore A” all you want. But without an
        argument you’re making a baseless claim.

        “By painting the nature vs. nurture struggle as a balance between voices”

        What’s this mean?

        “So in your world, thinking doesn’t have a physical basis in the brain? Good grief.”

        The brain is a necessary pre-condition for human mindedness but not a sufficient condition. Thinking is irreducible to the physical and functions of physical processes. See Ross’s Immaterial Aspects of Thought.

    • Genes can’t cause mental traits? Really? The science says exactly that. Intelligence is at least partially heritable (as seen even in studies looking at orphans), ASD is at least partially heritable, as are many mental illnesses (e.g. depression, psychopathy etc.). Wow, your post is completely wrong. Every trait is a combination of genetics and environment (and randomness) this is called a phenotype. Please, before trying again to lecture others on science, learn some of your own.

      • “ASD is at least partially heritable, as are many mental illnesses”

        ASD lacks biological and construct validity.

        https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40489-016-0085-x

        What about the multiple realizability of psychological states?

        “Wow, your post is completely wrong. Every trait is a combination of genetics and environment (and randomness) this is called a phenotype.”

        Genes don’t cause mental abilities because there are no psychophysical or psychological laws.

    • Shatterface says

      Thinking is irreducible to the brain.

      Not sure where you do your thinking but all mine goes on in the brain.

    • ” genes cause physical traits, and by virtue of causing physical traits they cannot cause mental traits” Down’s syndrome; schizophrenia, depression, etc You do not know what you are talking about.

      • Down syndrome is a genetic disorder, not a psychological trait. Schizophrenia isn’t genetic. There are no psychophysical laws

    • Ryan Carr says

      Lots of highfalutin’ responses to your comment there, I’ll just keep it basic….your an obnoxious dumbass.

        • David Turnbull says

          I’m glad that you call them them your contentions because they certainly aren’t facts. I also suggest you re-read Ross. You seem to have not understood his arguments.

          • David Turnbull says

            On the other hand, why re-read Ross. It’s mainly nonsense.

  5. martti_s says

    I sympathize strongly. In a math class I was about the only one who did not understand a problem of navigating a sailboat. I could not visualize it geometrically to be able to calculate the vectors. I made the mistake of saying so. I had never even BEEN on a sailboat.
    About 20 out of 70 people in the auditorium laughed out loud.
    Anyway, I made it through the med school and (barely) graduated. Yes, thank you, I am doing profesionally OK.

    The guys who laughed at me are all now professors and academics. They all look 10 years older than me!

    I do understand the importance of IQ now. Took me a while, the slow learner I am.
    Blank slate, yeah! It is like a religion in some circles. You question it and they want to burn you at stake. How can the human brain be the only known organ that is NOT a subject to genetic variation?

    • Indeed, the brain must vary based on genes, as well as on the environment the brain lives in (especially as a fetus or child when lots of growth/connections is taking place). But the brain also relies upon signals from elsewhere, so that will also play a part in terms of other body parts, hormones, etc.

  6. martti_s says

    @Cameron Sage: Thank you for sharing. One ‘autoethographic study’ like your presentation here is well worth a few badly conducted, biased and half-blind studies that we have more than enough of in various ‘scientific’ journals of today. We are complicated creatures. Life is not fair. The playing field is not even and some of us do not even see the ball.
    The Force be with you, Human!

  7. amsirap_r says

    Great read and very empowering. I can empathize with your experience and can see how I can apply your insights to students I work with.

  8. Richard says

    Brilliant article and I was very similar to this right down the the gun…for different reasons but similar. The story rings true, we all have gifts and weaknesses. Much is heritable.

  9. Irrational Actor says

    The authors experiences align very well with modern genetic research, that shows at least half of our personality and IQ / aptitude is genetic, and the part that isn’t genetic is influenced less by parents and family than it is by external factors and choices, which can often be fairly random yet consequential.

    Moreover, we grow further into our genes as we age. So I think many people would do well to stop flogging dead horses and instead try different things and pursue what they have both interest and aptitude in. It gives you a fighting chance to be happy and fulfilled, if not outright successful.

    I often tell people persistence doesn’t always pay, and being a quitter can actually be a good thing. Jump ship, move on, find what works, go with it.

    • Many people develop “interest” only after showing aptitude and receiving much praise and encouragement.
      You’ll never grow up a violin prodigy at 5 years old if you never even have a violin.

      • Irrational Actor says

        I agree David. Interest often follows aptitude (and encouragement), but this is far from universal. Many of us have multiple skill sets and areas of high competence in which we find it easy to perform better than most with little effort, yet still do not have enough interest in some of those areas to warrant pursuing them further.

        As for the violin, it gets far worse than that of course. Even within musical ability, we can imagine a potential trumpet prodigy missing the chance to realise their potential because they were given a violin at 5 years old, and not a trumpet. Or even a potential violin prodigy given a violin, but then made to feel uncool for having a violin by a peer group, and turning away from it because of this. Pretty sad to think about really, but I am sure it is more common than we realise.

        The point is we will all have different things we are good at and things we are not. We may not find the thing we are truly best at, but we will find some things we are good at, and we can at least pursue them, again as long as we also have interest in them.

  10. martti_s says

    There are few things in modern psychology that are documented better than the role of genes on intelligence. If you want to appear sane, you agree. If you want to play politics, that’s your choice.
    The studies are well conducted, the numbers are statistically valid.
    The science has no two opinions: Intelligence is a genetically regulated phenomenon.

    Then, there is another thing that has to do what you do with your intelligence.
    And still another one, should those with lower IQs have the access to similar academic careers an similar outcomes as those with the IQs in the 120-plus range.

    Politics can go against nature but exactly how much, is the question.

  11. Richard Russell says

    Using a pseudonym to author this wisp of an “article” is beyond lame. What are you worried about? That people who know you will find out you really are a mile wide and an inch deep?

    • Mike C says

      For starters, he discusses his (near) suicide attempt, and perhaps doesn’t care to deal with Internet trolls (cough). It’s a good essay, and would not have been as good without this detail. I think a lot of us can relate, and people who talk to kids that way are doing them no favors.

      (One correction: it’s “honor roll”.)

    • Ray Andrews says

      This is a good example of rudeness without substance of any kind.

  12. Nobody is equal to anybody else. The idea of equal outcome for everybody is crazy. The religion of equality is a delusion.

    We should also note that for those who compete at the top it is just a gene competition. Hard work will only get you so far.

    • Equality is not an outcome or an opportunity… The entire point about equal protection under the law isn’t that we have the same value in everything (equal like in math), but that the law doesn’t treat you better or worse based on anything but your actions.

    • For people at the top it is not a gene competition.

      It is, in fact, about hard work and luck for those in the very small percentage of players that have the minimum genetic requirements to play at the top level at all.

  13. X. Citoyen says

    It’s sad to be mistaken for lazy when you’ve really just reached the limits of your abilities.

    But I can also sympathize with the teachers who told you to try harder. If you had children, you’d know how common it is for them to insist that they can’t do something when they encounter some resistance or difficulty, only to remark on how easy it is after figuring it out.

    The bottom line is that it takes a lot of time and work from all involved to figure out whether the child really can’t do or learn something.

    • martti_s says

      The problem was that his abilities were not recognized.
      There are people who are dumb, no matter how you grade them.

      But here we have a person who had abilities that gave him a very satisfying life in most challenging circumstances. He just could not do math.

      I remember they thought I was slow, but I thought that they were not interesting. My daydreams were something else.

      He just had to make it happen and he did.
      All my kudos.

      • X. Citoyen says

        On the contrary, the same specialist who diagnosed his impairments rated his intelligence as “superior to very superior.” So, yes, his abilities and disabilities—at least in a general sense—were recognized. I’m not knocking him, and I’m happy to see his overcame his limitations. My point, rather, is that his kind of problem is hard to distinguish from your average child’s learning development. Thus, his case isn’t an indictment of the system, but a case study for teachers in lessons learned.

        If anything, we’ve gone the other way nowadays, medicalizing and psychologizing any and every failing. I’ve heard and seen far more cases of parents being told their child has a disability than the reverse.

    • I think it is also sad when teachers make assumptions about a student without talking to them about what they are doing – a student can work very hard and still fail, either because they have little or no aptitude or because they are working very hard in an unproductive manner. If the teacher had asked questions about the work he was doing – particularly had she asked him to bring in examples of his attempts, she might have gotten insight into what he did not understand. With this insight, she might have been able to explain the math in a way that made sense to him – or find a tutor who could (perhaps by focusing on his love of aviation and relating the math to an area of interest).

      That said, there can also be real brain deficits that are hard to overcome, and may not be worth overcoming if they do not impede you from living a happy, productive life. I have a deficit in the ability to rotate objects in my mind, probably related to my epilepsy. I have a PhD, do research, and yet, cannot draw the rooms of my house in the proper location on a schematic. I also have difficulty with orienting myself and would drive very little (or be lost much of the time) without google maps. Locations in my mind are clustered, by not in order, so I know that certain building are near other buildings, but cannot put them in order. Thankfully, with google maps, this has become a minor inconvenience, but I have realized that no matter how hard I work at it, my children, from a very young age, have a better sense of direction than I will ever have.

  14. Saw file says

    Often it’s not the topic that is the issue, but rather the teaching method.
    When I first became a journeyman, I often couldn’t fathom why some apprentices couldn’t understand some of the basic and ‘obvious’ trade knowledge that I was teaching them. Eventually I realized that it was because they didn’t learn the same way I did. Now I have about a half dozen methods of teaching the same thing.

    • martti_s says

      @saw life can you please elaborate? sounds like something we could all learn from.

  15. Cameron – I couldn’t agree with you more. As a trainee teacher I take what you say to heart and will try to use it in working with my own students.

  16. Why would you think your physical weaknesses were the result of “moral weakness”?
    The idea that we’re all the same and effort alone is the key difference is obviously nonsense. This is central fallacy of equity, the notion that the least among us should garner the most resources to overcome natural or personal deficiencies.

    • I think maybe equity is a moral concept – an intention that the least “apt” among us should have equal opportunity to lead a productive and fulfilling life.

      A fine and thoughtful essay Cameron Sage! But don’t stop wanting to fly. Your old math teacher probably couldn’t, but you can!

  17. Kelly says

    Thank you for sharing. This hit home. I was diagnosed with dyslexia at 25. My whole life has been trying to fit in to a systems Academic and professional. But, now I realize I need to find my own system and path in life.

  18. ADM64 says

    The term “blank slate” has been misrepresented to advance arguments against free will and thus often against free societies. The latter being based on some version of “people are not free to choose because of their genes, race, sex, class etc.”. That is a straw man: no one is free from reality. What “blank slate” really means is that we are born without specific intellectual content or knowledge. We can, to varying degrees, learn that content, to the extent of our natural innate aptitudes, plus or minus some expenditure of effort. Free will is real, so the need for political freedom, but no particular outcome can be willed, legislated or otherwise guaranteed.

    • Peter from Oz says

      ADM64
      I’m not sure I understand your analysis.
      I thought the ”blank slate” theorists conatained those who blame all social ills on environment and want totalitarian government to ensure the optimum conditions for every person to become what ever they want. Of course, when blank staters get any power and institute their policy proscriptions the results are always less than specatacular. This in itself shows that te blank slate theory has its problems.
      The nature over nurture side of the debate does have some element of determinism, but only on a superfiicial level. Yes you might not be destined to be a pilot, but that doesn’t stop you from having a very good life.

  19. I had somewhat similar issues. I am highly intelligent (IQ of 136 last time I took one), but was considered immature in the first couple of years in grade school. I also was extremely socially awkward and had anger control problems. My Kindergarten teacher actually thought I was mentally impaired, until they tested me. They held me back because of my immaturity, which probably made things worse because the course work was to easy and I grew quickly bored. Additionally, our small, rural school didn’t have funding for advanced or gifted student programs. We only had one hour every week with a gifted teacher who visited multiple schools. Later, after my middle child was diagnosed with ASD, I (at the insistence of my wife) took a screening test myself. It indicated that I probably am on the spectrum, high functioning autism, but back in the early 80s they didn’t test well for ASD and so I was never treated or received all the therapy I should have (I did have behavioral and speech therapy). So at the age of 40 I finally “learned” what was “wrong” with me.

  20. I had a research student who was innumerate. In data cleaning, errors of orders of magnitude are detected being able to see that there is something fishy about a 20 in a column of 2’s and 3’s, for example. She really could not see it in another column, even after it was pointed out in the first as an probable error. It took me months to reassemble the data. My husband had a student who could not learn that 10mg looked different from 1000mg on a balance, despite the fact that she could calculate how much she needed. Both were very bright, but I suspect they were a bit erratic in the kitchen, and for different reasons.

    Cognitive abilities – yes brain functions – are made up of lots of little elements. The odd ones out like these indicate some of the functions that most of us assume are all one thing are actually made up out of a number of units. Both of these students went on to high end careers, but only one of them had the insight to know where she had to check things over. Cameron sounds like he had some bit of hardware that did not process – could be genes (all three of my brothers are dislexic, and I am a slow reader, so probably genes with high penetrance), could be developmental (methylation patterns, early learning?). Regardless, very specific deficits and abilities almost certainly have some basis in the function of the brain.

    When a lesion occurs in some part of the nervous system, it can produce a similar problem in functioning. Retraining therapy can help to some extent, but the full function is never reproduced. Because of this, in addition to retraining, it is also necessary for the patient to adjust his goals to maximise his functional ability.

    Cameron has used what he has in terms of function – congratulations.

  21. rickoxo says

    There’s a difficult problem here for teachers. Like the author and against the current trends and thinking in education, I believe different students are better and worse at different subjects and that effort alone is not the sole predictor of success academically.

    At the same time teachers and schools far too often bail on difficult subjects by saying that some students just aren’t able to handle them. Crappy teachers, horrible curriculum and tracked classes tend to produce outcomes where students under perform. Throw in students’ tendencies to not want to work hard (especially on subjects they don’t like or succeed at easily) and it’s a recipe for underachievement.

    This is a tough tight rope to balance on. The current trends in education focus on effort, partly because effort is the only thing you can control and partly out of a misguided sense of equality. There is also extensive evidence that effort very often leads to success, and the counterpoint, there is very rarely success without effort.

    But there’s no getting around the fact that across the range of things a student can focus on, there are different “multipliers” that mediate the gain relative to effort. For me, anything written I can glance at it and often do better than folks who study it for hours. But show me some schematic drawing and ask me about it, and I frequently can’t figure out what I’m looking at, let alone use it to get useful information.

    If it were black and white, I can learn math, I can’t learn to read, It would be a lot easier to navigate. There are many students who struggle to learn to read, but end up becoming excellent readers. The same is true with math, science, programming, whatever. There are other situations where students realize that the level of effort it would take to be mildly successful in an area is way out of proportion with the effort it would take be much more successful in a different area.

    Accurately navigating this landscape, when it’s impacted by families, teachers, schools, access to resources and changes over time is a crazy complicated trick.

    • Evander says

      The aim should be to create institutions which can socialise the young and educate them according to their strengths. We need more flexibility. In an ideal world, the only core curriculum would be those skills which are a sine qua non of adult life. Kids who are whizzes at numbers but suck at Shakespeare shouldn’t have to slog through English literature, and vice versa. You would need to broaden the curriculum and make it more flexible. There’s probably a lot of logistical work there and funding issues.

      More confirmatory science and more popularisation of the genetics behind IQ would help put the pressure on policy makers to make readjustments for the better education of kids. It’s sad to read the author nearly took his life because of a sense of moral failing. His moment of realisation should have been come from the informed opinion of a caring educator well before that grim occasion.

    • Annie Paper says

      This is how it works in homeschool. Your kids learn the basics to proficiency no matter how long this takes to accomplish. They get to soar on up with what they are good at and what they they are passionate about. The passionate part can change over time, of course.

    • D-Rex says

      I supposedly have an IQ between 135 and 140 depending on the test (or rather had) but I don’t feel very smart and am frequently in awe of people who write expansive comments here.
      “For me, anything written I can glance at it and often do better than folks who study it for hours. But show me some schematic drawing and ask me about it, and I frequently can’t figure out what I’m looking at”
      I’m the exact opposite and need to decipher most text before i fully understand it. Show me a diagram, however, and I totally get the picture (pun intended), this was a problem at Uni where 2nd and 3rd year Chem textbooks were heavily text oriented and the only graphics tended to be graphs, I had to convert text to graphics to really get it.
      I suspect that my “high IQ” was probably related to the style of many of the questions which were frequently pattern recognition types and suited my style of understanding.
      There is only a small satisfaction in being able to understand most of the references on the big bang TV show (which I do) and would happily trade that these days to be able to express myself like many here.

      • D-Rex says

        BTW, I’m really bad at chess, something to do with lack of ability to visualise moves ahead maybe. But sometimes I’ll be reading a fantasy novel and zone out for several pages while my brain directly converts the text to images like a movie. It’s a bit of a shock when I come back to reality again.

  22. Farris says

    “I’m just not good at…” can become a crutch or an excuse to quit. One should beware the frequency of its use.
    I do not know the author’s age but since he writes he was diagnosed as ADD, I surmise he is younger than I. In my day such kids were labeled “hyper”. The point being, I don’t believe kids and young adults are very well instructed in math. I know several young people who excel at high levels of math but struggle to make change. Next time your bill totals $10.98, give the young person $11.03 and watch the look on their face. Once I assisted a student preparing to take a timed multiple choice math exam. She read the first problem and went to work. “What are you doing?”, I asked. “Solving the problem.”, she explained. I countered, “The test is timed and multiple choice. Sometimes after understanding the question you can recognize the answer from amongst the choices. This will save you time and when it doesn’t, you haven’t lost much by just glancing at the answers.” Tellers at the bank are amazed I still balance my checkbook but on at least three occasions, I have found bank errors. I am no whiz at math but when I taught, it was more from a practical application more than an abstract perspective.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Farris
      Most of the errors of which you speak are arithmetical rather than mathematical.
      I’m interested to know about North American usage. Does the word ”math” incorporate arithmetic in the US and Canada?.

  23. Farris says

    Well Peter you have managed to reveal another of my weaknesses, language and grammar. 😃 I believe you are correct that arithmetic is a subset of mathematics but I do note that Merriam Webster’s lists each as a synonym for the other.

  24. Andrew Leonard says

    Several years ago an equine genetics researcher discovered a single gene that is responsible for producing extra muscle mass in thoroughbred racehorses. Inheriting the gene from both sire and dam (CC) produces a sprinter, from either sire or dam (CT/TC) produces a middle-distance runner, and when not inherited at all (TT), produces a long-distance runner (stayer). Fairly obviously the extra muscle mass results in extra ‘horsepower’ at sprinting distances, but the trade-off is more deadweight as distance increases.

    There is now a straightforward genetic test for this ‘speed gene’, and trainers use the results of this test to train and place their horses in appropriate races. The point is, in horseracing the differing ‘aptitudes’ of horses are not only accepted, but form the basis of training decisions. For some reason we find accepting the aptitudes of humans much harder to accept and deal with. I guess horseracing is mostly about prizemoney, so there is a strong regulator on thinking, whereas with humans there is more scope for personal beliefs and ideologies to take hold.

  25. The OP strikes a cord with me too. Although I score in the ‘very superior’ range I have an uneven IQ profile, meaning I am significantly better on some subsets of the test than others. That’s not unusual in Aspies.

    At school I was taught the blank state theory but that falls down as soon as you consider developmental disorders. They are life long. I was born with Asperger’s. My brain is better at processing some kind of information than other kinds.

    And autism is a spectrum. There are different degrees of some people processing some kinds of information differently the other.

    So the only way to maintain the fiction that people are born a blank state is to say that, well, some aren’t. Autistics aren’t blank slates but everyone else is.

    Yet the spectrum model makes it impossible to draw a clear line between autistics and non-autistics.

    And autism is just one condition among many. What about dyslexia? Or dyspraxia?

    So at what point can you say this person was born with a blank slate and this one was not?

    Are the blank slaters implying that some of us are more blank slate than others?

  26. William E. Kimberly, Sr. says

    Thanks for the story. Mine is similar: A host of limitations among which are an inability to remember names and faces, an Emotional IQ of perhaps 60, and very little common sense….But when I reached Plane Geometry, things took off… from then on I was an “A” or “D” student.
    The technical strengths gave me a productive and satisfying career, while simultaneously the weaknesses were damaging in my personal life. Looking back from 75, I really don’t know if somehow I could have lived a “normal” life…. The inborn differences seem to have been insurmountable.

  27. Brian says

    My grandfather is 89 years old. He dropped out of the 8th grade because reading was just too difficult for him.
    To this day, he literally cannot read something without reading it out loud to himself. It makes watching subtitled movies with him somewhat maddening.

    However…..he is NOT stupid. He was drafted into the Army, sent to Korea, and became quite adept at killing Chinese soldiers without himself being killed. Enough to earn him several medals.

    He came home from the war and got a job with the local electric utility. He finished out a 35 year career supervising the wiring of entire neighborhoods with power. I am sitting in a house, in a neighborhood, at this very moment, that was electrified by my grandfather. Everything works.

    The shame of it is that nowadays, he would be shut out of such a career because of his reading limitations, instead of being given that chance to succeed at a job by actually trying to do it.

  28. cjcmay says

    “There is no substitute for talent. Industry and all its virtues are of no avail.”
    – Aldous Huxley (member of a prodigiously talented genetic line).

  29. My related realisation: When it comes to abilities, no matter how good you are there will always be someone better, and no matter how bad you are there will always be someone worse. (After all, there are over 7 billion people in the world.) Everyone has a unique combination of abilities and may find a unique place. I have always followed my interest. Consequently, I have been motivated to work hard at it and have succeeded quite well (so far). 🙂

  30. Fortunately I was well aware that not everyone had the same strengths having been informed by the adults, unfortunately I was so focussed on girls and fitting in that my matric marks ended up being garbage but at least I passed.

  31. And if it weren’t for KFC, a chicken would have solved Riemann’s hypothesis

  32. Marge says

    Once you have children, this becomes even more obvious as you watch them develop in their own ways, each one different from the last, coming from the same parents but so unique! Good luck to everyone discovering their path in life. I am still discovering my own, even after 53 years!

  33. Ralph Allen says

    Careful you will soon offend the SJWs of the world. Everyone can be an Olympic athlete or a rocket scientists and genes have nothing to do with it. Coming to a campus near you thought police.

  34. Bob Rutledge says

    Women, without a man, can not raise boys. Examples abound. Exceptions don’t.

    No father mentioned. No male mentor mentioned. Outdoor exercise for males of all ages is must.

    A boy who has never been to school until he is 8 or 10, will catch up to the girls by 14. Boys are not made for our school paradigm. ADD is FAKE MEDICINE.

    Boys must never progress faster than their ability to master a subject or physical activity. Girls focus better and therefore master concepts quicker and fall behind less often. Read Dr. James Dobson and Dr. Jordan Peterson.

    I could lock myself in a room and try to teach myself a foreign language but I would fail. If I had a one-on-one tutor/mentor, I bet I could.

    Women can not raise boys.

    An observation with my own eyes over 63 years: More women play the piano than men. Have you ever wondered why women are great piano players but the great pianists are men? More women cook than men. Women are very good cooks, but the great chefs are men?

    Obsession with things and skills is the difference. Men obsess over things, women over people. Thank God for the difference. Dad would let the baby choke on things found on the floor while he waxed his Chevy for the 3rd time this week. Women, please don’t aspire to be men. Men, please don’t aspire to be women.

    Let the other do their job.

  35. Stephen Linwood Smith says

    I am always surprised when a person is almost undone by a lack of common sense – this time from parents, teachers and school administrators. It is well founded that people have different aptitudes and that weaknesses can be strengthened, but frequently natural aptitudes will carry the day. Did no one in this person’s life really know that? They drove a kid to the point of suicide because they didn’t understand a basic truth that is there for all to see? Amazingly stupid in my opinion. I also completely object to the idea that you can be anything you want to be if you work hard enough. Try singing. Can you practice and improve? Sure but if your heart is set on a performing career and you don’t have exceptional natural talent augmented by study and work you are kidding yourself about your future. You are probably better served by pursuing something you are good at, creating your career and pursuing singing in the church choir or the local theater group.

    Parents stop this stupid charade. Your child can’t be anything. Understand their strengths and weaknesses and guide them to activities, education and a career where they and have some success. You must discourage children who have an unrealistic view of themselves because it is ultimately destructive. Look around you, there are many examples these days of wasted lives.

  36. estepheavfm says

    The Tabula Rasa superstition destroys lives. We now live under a “HR” cult that is oblivious to “g” (general intelligence), and cannot identify aptitude to excel. Hence unemployment for conscientious intelligent people — fueling the increasing “white”-privileged/”male”-privileged suicide epidemic.

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  38. Jezza says

    When I was in primary school in the 1940’s, the ‘sums’ we did featured ‘problems’ such as ‘a tank x” high, y” long and z” wide is being filled with water from a pipe d” in diameter at a rate of g gallons per hour. It is being drained through a pipe half the size of the inlet. How long will it take for the tank to overflow?’ I never enjoyed arithmetic, but I imagine such calculations would come in handy were I ever on a sinking ship. I did not learn much mathematics after that but it did teach me how to go about solving problems, how to sequence one’s thoughts. English was my best subject – I could read from the age of five. I am now loaded with words I never use because nobody else understands what they mean. Oh, by the way, it’s HONOUR in English and HONOR in American.
    On the subject of inherited aptitudes, I seem to have inherited a ‘pontification’ gene. No idea where that came from. I can pontificate on almost any subject that I have read a book on. Some people find me very irritating but that’s their loss. I am quite sad that when I die all my accumulated knowledge and wisdom will pass with me. One thing I am absolutely certain of: life is a joke and we are all comedians.

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