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  • Reverend James Squire

The Smartest Person In The Room

I am currently reading a book, How the South Won the Civil War, by Heather Cox Richardson, who is a gifted historian explaining in her recent work how we continue to fight for the soul of America as we exist between an oligarchy and a democracy and the source of the roots of that struggle. I found myself underlining almost every sentence in her book. I value what I read when I find myself saying, “I never knew that or that’s a totally different way of seeing the issue or now I get it!”

I love to learn! I have been blessed to work with several people who are geniuses. I don’t use that word lightly. I can name four off the top of my head. Dr. Art Caplan who was the founder of Bioethics and, for all intents and purposes, brought Bioethics into mainstream conversation because he was carried by TV news stations and NPR; Dr. Marty Seligman, who is the founder of Positive Psychology and winner of a lifetime achievement award whose theory dominates the world of counseling as well as the auditoriums at Harvard and Yale; Bob Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who are among the world’s greatest architects who designed the Class of 1944 Chapel at the Episcopal Academy. Genius is normally associated with intelligence. Working with these four people was like climbing a ladder into another world of ideas and a new vision. They stretched others around them. That is what geniuses do!

Unfortunately, there is another form of being a genius that does not get as much attention. I was in my office one afternoon when an EA parent stopped in to say “hello” before he went out to the playing fields to watch a few of his kids in their sports competitions. Just before he left, he told me that he was brought back to a local university from which he graduated as part of a group of people who were very financially successful in life in so many different and varied fields of enterprise. The university wanted their financial support.

The person who sat across from me was a bona fide tough guy in a demanding business. We were friends beyond his being a parent of EA students. Real tough guys don’t need to act tough and threaten other people. He wasn’t a bully like DeSantis or Trump. He said that he knew that EA and I were all about academic excellence, but I have never forgotten his closing comment as he left. He turned around and looked at me as he was leaving and said, “Rev, I looked around the room at all these people that the university was asking for money, and you know what?” I waited for his answer to his own question. “We were all C students!” He chuckled as he left the office. He had a great laugh, but I always remember that exchange.

Being the smartest person in the room is not necessary to be successful in your chosen endeavor as there are different kinds of intelligence as outlined by Howard Gardner at Harvard that he referred to as multiple intelligences. There are eight of them including such as visual-spatial, and bodily- kinesthetic intelligence. It has nothing to do with learning from a book or being first in your class.

Robert Coles, a professor and psychiatrist at Harvard, made the additional case that intelligence in a classroom is not equivalent to living ethically. He learned this when he discovered that his top student in his ethics class was mistreating the person who was cleaning his dorm room. Ethics must be taught AND caught.

This may be obvious to you, the reader, but I always like to remind myself as much as possible that life has different kinds of geniuses. Someone once asked me why I put my work in the steel mill on my curriculum vitae along with some high-powered academic institutions. I learned a lot about life in that mill as well as in my blue-collar world. I learned a lot in the mill from someone called the Baron who was the head of the Irish Mafia that ruled the coal to coke side of the mill to heat the iron at high temps. He taught me about power and a different kind of politics and even if you are afraid, never show it. He was a loan shark. We were paid weekly in cash from a Brinks truck. I watched people having to turn over their whole paycheck to him because of gambling. After one shift I walked with him to a gravel parking lot across from the mill to go home. A car backfired. I watched the Baron leap over the hood of a car to safety because he thought it was a gun shot. He had enemies. When he reappeared, I was doubled over with laughter. So much for not showing fear.

Another genius was a scrappy black man who lived in the poor section of town and was a single parent attempting to raise a young son. He would lecture me on what the world was really like pacing back and forth in front of the shed where we ate lunch with his hands behind his back, bent over like a coach thinking about sending me into a different game. I gathered that he had wished that someone had cared enough about him to have a similar conversation. He was passionate about what he had to say.

And then there is that genius with whom I lived. Some people know that my father had a sixth-grade education, but he was the smartest person in the room of my life. His classroom was a crippling stroke when I was in tenth grade. He used my weights in our basement every day to regain his strength, and when necessary, I would help get his sweaty body back to his upstairs bedroom. It took a year for him to be able to speak, write only his name and nothing more ever again, courage, character, and grit to walk down the sidewalk dragging one leg behind him to return to work, being mocked by people for his disability, knowing that he had a family to feed, and no food stamps, no support except a small amount of money from his union. He continues to teach me every day as do the famous and not so famous because the smartest person in the room is anyone who changes your life for the better, some a little and some a lot.

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