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Knowing All The Wrong Things

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Being a genius always sounds really great, unless the genius is you.

People envy it, assuming right away that “Everything must just come so easily.”

They don’t think about “Everything except understanding people,” which is usually the next part. Or, “Everybody just waiting to see if you make a mistake.” Or how about, “A really smart person could die of boredom in the public school system.”

Michael knows about all of these things, because he’s been there. He’s still there.

Mathematical equations, systems theory, the quiet elegance of algorithms… he knows all of that well. The meanings of words and phrases, essay formats, the rules of grammar and the poetry of certain novelists’ styles are all tucked away in his mind waiting to be called upon, to be reawakened.

But the subtleties of verbal communication—of “No” accompanied by a blushing smile, or “I see” when the mouth and eyes are stony— there is no textbook for these things, no syllabus for social intelligence.

Abstract reasoning is all well and good, but it doesn’t tell you if the girl in Social Studies who sits in front of you likes you. Dostoevsky might still be rippling through your brain heedlessly when a conversation with some boy you barely know ends with a fist to your face that you never saw coming.

Even for a genius, there are intangible parts of life.

Sometimes, Michael thinks those might be exactly the things he really needs to know.

Now, Lincoln is completely different. Lincoln can fix cars. He has girls calling on the phone around the clock—even the ones that know they’re part of a buffet and not the entrée.

On the other hand, Lincoln also gets into a lot of trouble. But Michael doesn’t think that’s because Lincoln doesn’t understand. No—he’s pretty sure Lincoln knows what the score is, and either decides to take the risk or to give vent to whatever’s pissing him off. Lincoln doesn’t have misunderstandings with people—he knows what’s going on and what lies at stake. He simply chooses to take that next step, knowing that the consequences might be very, very bad.

It might be stupidity, but it definitely isn’t ignorance.

Michael usually doesn’t understand the context well enough to make good or bad decisions when it comes to things like that.

He’s been labeled a geek all of his life, and people have been angry at him or expected too much of him because of it. His grades were always good and he always knew the answers to the teacher’s questions. But by fourth grade he’d learned not to raise his hand all the time, and years later he would simply wait to be called on like everyone else.

In the third grade, Michael found himself in a situation he didn’t know how to handle.

He was doing so well in school that his teacher got the idea to find some enrichment opportunities for him. “Would you like to learn Spanish”? Mrs. Stettler had asked him. And Michael answered “Yes,” because he had no way of knowing where those simple little words might lead.

Well, where they led was to an eight-year-old joining a group of fifth and sixth graders for three-times-weekly lessons with the Spanish teacher. Sitting in that classroom in the too-big chair, surrounded by the intermittent snickers of the kids around him, Michael had the feeling he’d made a big mistake.

He hadn’t known—why hadn’t she said?—how uncomfortable and embarrassing it would be. On the playground, those same older kids called him “Brainiac” and “the boy genius.” It wasn’t nice, the way they said it.

He wanted to ask Mrs. Stettler if he could stop going, but the first words out of her mouth were, “How was Spanish? Isn’t it fun? It’s so nice that you have a chance to learn it.”

Peer pressure lay on one side and fear of disappointing his teacher on the other. Even Michael’s super-brain couldn’t find the answer to that one.

One day he stopped off to use the bathroom on the way to Spanish, and he washed up slower and slower as the clock ticked on. What if he just didn’t go to class? he wondered. What would happen then?

After two weeks, he’d successfully spent every Spanish lesson hiding out in the bathroom—in the stalls if necessary, standing on the toilet to keep his shoes out of sight. The time seemed to stretch on forever in that bathroom, with nothing but his own mind to keep him occupied…but it was better than being made fun of.

His downfall was a break in routine—someone else’s, not his. The bell had rung a minute or two back, and he had just stepped out of the stall when the Spanish teacher himself walked in the bathroom. Michael froze like a mouse about to be eaten by a snake. For once he had no words—no idea what to say at all.

And he couldn’t understand why the Spanish teacher didn’t seem surprised to find him there.

Mrs. Stettler sat him down that afternoon, her words slipping past him like a river of remorse. “Why didn’t you tell me you didn’t want to go?” and “I thought you’d really enjoy doing this.” He still had no answers for her, because then he felt guilty for not trusting her on top of already feeling guilty for not going to the class.

When the school year was over and Mrs. Stettler moved to a district across town, Michael was immensely, ridiculously relieved.

He never did learn to speak Spanish. He couldn’t make himself want to, after that experience. But he figured that was okay, because he’d never need to know it.

Life is full of ironies, including what you do and don’t know, and what things you choose to learn or to avoid.

Because if someone were still watching Michael, all these years later while he plots to break out of Fox River prison and escape to Panama… they’d see that that decision was one of those rare times when Michael was actually wrong…

 

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