I grew up in an old mill town that crackled with its own kind of energy. Toughness was considered the supreme virtue.
I didn’t have it.
When a girl named Pam challenged me to a fight over a boy in eighth grade, I hid in my room for days. She celebrated her default victory by cracking jokes about my lankiness for the amusement of the disappointed crowd.
“I probably couldn’t have reached her chin anyway,” Pam quipped. (She wasn’t only tough; she was a budding stand-up comedian.)
Ouch. At the time I was 5 foot 4 1/2 and suicidally self-conscious about the way I towered over some of the god-like “cute” boys in my class. If I’d known I had four more inches left to grow, I probably would have never come out of that room.
But then in eighth grade, suicidal self-consciousness is pretty much a way of life. At least, it was for me. Another thing I was self-conscious about was the “advanced” class where I’d been placed in school. Talk about social disgrace!
In fact, I was so dismayed that I went to my guidance counselor and begged him to get me out of it. For one thing, I was convinced it was a mistake; I clearly didn’t belong there. I still think I didn't.
All my friends were in the business class; and I, like them, had no intention of going to college.
College was for nerds.
And I was a tough girl. Honest I was.
The guidance counselor, Mr. McGowan, clucked and nodded sympathetically--then left me where I was. It took me a year to forgive him; decades later, I still haven’t run out of gratitude.
Unfortunately, things haven’t changed too much since I was in eighth grade. In far too many communities, kids are still embarrassed to be called smart. If I really was the brainiac my middle-school peers accused me of being, I’d figure out a way to change that.
But every now and then the smart people of the world win one. The day they give out the MacArthur genius grants is one of them.This years’ fellows range in age from thirty-one to sixty-four. A few are well-known; most aren’t. Their areas of expertise are diverse and fascinating. I get excited just reading about them and contemplating all the great contributions they're making.
What I like about this award is that it’s absolutely unconditional.
--You don’t have to be young.
--You don’t have to look good on the cover of People magazine.
--You don’t have to know anyone. (At least, it appears the foundation has done everything possible to factor this out.)
--You can do anything you want with the money.
--And damn, you don’t even have to be tough.
A half-million bucks just for being smart! What a deal.
AND for writers:
J.A. KONRATH writes about time and how we use it...
And SARA GRAN takes on her critics and teaches us all a lesson in non-attachment...