The accidental genius — from West Philly poverty to Mensa

    I don’t romanticize poor, urban life. I lived it. I grew up in a sociopath-generating community. As an accidental Mensan, or just a black kid from West Philly who tests well, I hope we all can escape our evolutionary prison of blood and tears.

    I grew up in low-income West Philadelphia in the mid-’70s through the ’80s. Because my neighborhood was 95 percent black, I didn’t realize I was a minority in this country until the police informed me of my status as an outsider. In my young mind, the cops were part of an occupying force. I grew up being chased by them (though I wasn’t bad — far from it) and chased by the gangbangers because I was seen as a collaborator for studying in school.

    I don’t romanticize poor, urban life. I lived it. I grew up in a sociopath-generating community. The definition of sociopath I subscribe to is that of an unorganized, maladjusted, antisocial loner. Add impulsive and erratically violent, and that would describe many of my childhood neighbors. I am not excusing the behavior of these sociopaths, but as I grew older I began to understand that the roots of their problems began in childhoods of deprivation. Scratch a gangbanger and you will find the abandoned child underneath.

    I also don’t romanticize society at large. There have been demonstrable improvements in race relations since the ’70s and ’80s, but we still must reduce stereotyping and stop creating and (sometimes) supporting unequal laws

    You cannot imagine how bad the public junior high school I attended was. My math instructor would not teach class but would read magazines and chat with other students. The walls were covered by graffiti, and trash littered the hall floors. Hoodlums and actual gang members wandered the school. Drugs were sold openly.

    I got a reprieve from this environment when I was 14 and attended a free private school in upstate Pennsylvania. The Milton Hershey School, in Hershey, was set up by the chocolate mogul in the early 1900s for white, male orphans. The federal government made the school start taking minorities by threatening its tax exempt status, and the school was racially integrated in 1970. Girls were allowed in seven years later.

    Hershey was a model for good education: disciplined, organized and physically clean with good teachers and expectations of academic success. I have nothing but good memories of my time there, other than the occasional bottle thrown at me from a passing car whose white occupants shouted “n—–!” And sometimes a teacher or house parent — we lived in group homes — would say that, while they had nothing against us people, we didn’t belong there.

    I still laugh about my meeting with an admissions counselor for the school. He gave me an IQ test, and one of the questions he asked was: “What does brunette mean?” I was mystified what such a question would reveal about the IQ of a 13-year-old black kid from Philly. Fortunately, I had watched enough “Charlie’s Angels” to know that Jaclyn Smith and the smart woman were the brunettes.

    I really did enjoy my time at the private school, though. Compared to West Philadelphia, it was vacation.

    After high school, I went to college. I got a BS degree — pun intended — married and had two sons. Then I decided to apply for grad school and had to take the Miller Analogy Test. While researching the test, I found out that it was legal to buy the prior year’s test to study for this year’s test. In my old neighborhood, such shenanigans would’ve been called cheating, but I was assured that this was acceptable test-taking behavior. So I bought study guides and took the prior year’s test. Having been able to practice, when I took the actual MAT, I did very well — so well that Mensa sent me a note that I qualified for admission.

    Thus here I am, an accidental Mensan, though not simply because I look different or am the descendant of the enslaved. I stumbled into Mensa, but the fact I could even qualify for membership is a rebuke of those who tried to use spurious notions about race and “ethnic science” to justify the mistreatment of strangers.

    Even as a child I wanted justice against the oppressors of my ancestors and my own occupiers, but rationally, I understood that people act certain ways in groups. Treating strangers well is hard to do for a tribal species like ours. There were sound biological reasons that our ancestors evolved to mistrust strangers and non-tribe members. Unfortunately, my experience is that the stranger is often oppressed.

    As an accidental Mensan, or just a black kid from West Philly who tests well, I hope we all can escape our evolutionary prison of blood and tears — not because I am afraid of my occupiers but because I empathize with all of us and know we need to escape our history together.

    This essay was originally published as “The Accidental Mensan” in the February 2015 edition of the Mensa Bulletin.

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