Life in the Library

My husband is a huge fan of public libraries. He’s been going to various public libraries in the NYPL system since he was a child. We still have his worn, paper library card dating back to his childhood. When people ask him where he got his law degree, he tells them, “the public library.” Once married to him, I started tagging along on his weekly library expeditions. And since our 17th anniversary is right around the corner, I have 17 years of library observations under my belt.

Back in the day (is 17 years really that long ago?) people were in libraries for books. There were few computers in branches, and most of those were use for word processing and printing. Somewhere around 2000 people began using the libraries for internet access, and within a few years there were stacks of laptops at checkout desks available for hourly use. Around 5 years ago I noticed a tipping point where there was far more internet/ laptop use than book browsing. In branches in poorer areas the patrons are there exclusively for access to the laptops and internet. In wealthier branches it’s about 70/30 in favor of laptops to books.

And what do people do on these laptops? Yes, I snoop, and it’s always one of three things: youtube music or movie videos; video games (even for the adults), and less often, facebook or a similar social networking site.

Today, at our local branch, which is one block down from a blighted area and housing project, there was not a single patron with a book (unless you count my family). Every last person was on a laptop (one person was asleep in a chair, but was later on a laptop). There were many children there– most of them unattended, and in fact I saw some very young children (age 3 or 4) with only slightly older siblings watching them. They hunkered down with the laptops watching rap videos and playing mindless video games. Everyone there looked either poor or homeless. Of course, I don’t know for a fact they were poor or homeless– appearances can be deceiving– when I first met my sister’s future father-in-law I thought he was a vagrant, but he turned out to own an aeronautics company. But I don’t think there were any stealth moguls in this crowd.

So when people complain of a digital divide, I do wonder, what divide exactly are they talking about, if poor people are using the computers for video games and youtube? It’s not that poor people don’t deserve to waste their time on youtube and video games, but I would think people without access to these mindless time suckers might actually be ahead of the game, intellectually speaking. In fact I’ve noticed an amazing thing with my kids: when I turn off the TV and forbid video games, they start reading.

One of the semi-attended young children at the branch today started crying over something her sibling-slash-babysitter did to her, so I made a point of sitting next to her with my own daughter and read a book out loud, thinking it might distract both of them. The little girl listened and stared at the book, entranced. There were lift up flaps and I asked her if she wanted to lift them up. The first few times I asked she looked puzzled, and finally she tentatively reached out a hand to lift up the flap for the picture underneath. I wondered if she’d ever looked through a flap book before (my little kids always love them), or even had a book read out loud to her, since she clearly found the experience so strange.

It reminded me of a time when I was younger– I had an interest in photography and would wander through the poorer parts of the rural town where I grew up, photographing abandoned mills. Once I came upon a small herd of children playing unattended. They came over to me, fascinated, asked about my camera, and asked to go through my bag where I happened to have a book of fairy tales (why I was carrying it I don’t remember). Feeling in a friendly mood I offered to read it to them, and I sat down on the ground to read out loud. They were transfixed and hung on every word, and I realized, while reading to them, that this was a very new experience for them, and they may well have never been read to before.

The irony here is that most of my seven children had no interest in being read to. Whenever I sat them down for a good book, they squirmed, sat upside down, grabbed the book, complained hysterically about who was sitting on which cushion, it was always a nightmare. The exception might be my 2 year old, who, despite not speaking, loves paging slowly through books and having them read to her. She’ll even page through books without pictures with a look of keen interest in her eyes.

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Thoughts on IQ Tests

As I’ve written about previously, I was administered an IQ test as part of the gifted program I was placed in, in middle school. I honest to god thought the psychologist made a calculation error, but three years later I was administered another IQ test by a different clinician as part of a full psych work up and it yielded similar results. Both times I scored in the 140s which puts me in the very low end of “genius.” Yes, I place genius in quotes, as you will see.

I struggled terribly in school. My grades started to plummet in anything math related in 9th grade. I barely passed Algebra, Geometry, Biology, or Chemistry. In college I had to drop out of Algebra, Physics, and Biology classes, and ended up replacing them with the stupid person Astronomy course (which wasn’t that easy– for me anyway). I got a D in a philosophy class where I couldn’t understand a word the hopelessly arrogant professor uttered. If I were a very low end genius (which, terrifyingly enough, is less than 1% of humanity), shouldn’t I have been racking up As? Or at least B minuses? Yes I studied hard– I practically lived in the library– and no I didn’t party, except on the very odd occasion.

I did do well in any class that was based on text (as opposed to numbers), especially if it required mostly regurgitation, like foreign language. I had perfect scores on 2 foreign language, English, and History AP exams going into college. I scored a perfect verbal on my SAT. But this was little comfort when faced with the constant feeling of being in way, way over my head in every other subject. I also noticed that if a text-based subject became too abstract (like that philosophy class, and a few deconstructionist literature classes) I was totally lost.

So here are my unprofessional theories on why I scored higher than average on the IQ tests, but bombed so many academic subjects.

1) I suffered from PTSD and my cognitive abilities were impaired.  I don’t think this was the case, because if it had been, all my subjects would have suffered.

2) IQ tests do test for intelligence (“g”) but do so primarily through evaluating memory and pattern recognition.

3) IQ tests only test memory and pattern recognition, but not necessarily the ability to process that information.

If “3” is correct, there will be a subset of the population scoring high solely based on memory and pattern recognition, but not “intelligence.” I believe I fit into this category because what I do have, and always have had, is an excellent memory. I have a near photographic memory for text (so does my sister) which hasn’t lessened with age. In some circumstances it is completely photographic. I’m also very good at pattern recognition. For example, during all those miserable math classes, I could simply glance at a page in my textbook and immediately tell you how many “4s” or “9s” there were on a page, or how many odd numbers came after 2 even numbers, or any other variety of number patterns. Of course all that was completely useless for the class at hand, but it kept me entertained while the professors droned on. I have color associations for numerals and letters, so I could glance at a page of numbers, then reproduce it mentally or by hand with colors. I also have the weird ability to open a book to the exact passage I’m seeking, without leafing through the book.

If a class ever went beyond rote memorization and regurgitation, I was in trouble.  There were certain subjects where I could process information in a more nuanced or abstract manner, but it would only go so deep. I also discovered that any language I studied had to use a Roman alphabet.  I tried taking ancient Greek in college and it was a disaster (the one exception is that I taught myself hebrew as a child, but I’m nowhere near fluent). I’ve often felt like a human camera, or a computer with only one or two functions; my thinking is relentlessly literal.

I have a friend who is similar to what I describe in myself. He’s a senior master (step below grandmaster) and also has a photographic memory, and obviously is good at pattern recognition (for chess), but like me he struggled in school, barely passed math, has embarrassing difficulties with what should be second nature, and goes through life feeling stupid.

If there is indeed a subset of the population scoring well on these tests– and perhaps scoring well on standardized tests– mostly due to good memory and pattern recognition (I scored much higher on my math SAT than I should have, I’m guessing due to my pattern recognition ability), is there an implication that there is a segment of the population without stellar memory or pattern recognition, but that can process information well? If so, there might be some truth to the “IQ tests only test how well you perform on IQ tests” complaint. Or are memory and pattern recognition requisites for true intelligence?

Further, and at the risk of stereotyping, I’ve often wondered if asians suffer from a similar but less severe plight as mine. We’ve all heard the adage that, despite outscoring other populations on IQ and standardized tests, asians are less likely to be independent thinkers or to “think outside the box.” It would appear there is some incongruity at play because the ultimate success of asians in terms of employment doesn’t match up with their scoring capacities. Perhaps asians are genetically predisposed to excellent memory and pattern recognition, but less reliably possess true “g.”

A couple of my children seem to have inherited my disease. My oldest daughter, who struggles in school (more so than I did) wasn’t able to read fluently (with understanding) until she was ten.  However, from the age of five on, she could “read” in that she could read pages of text, and pronounce everything correctly, but she’d have no idea what she was reading. She had learned to fake reading by memorizing the phonemes and letter combinations as sight words, but she never actually absorbed any meaning. It was a mysterious and strange thing to watch her rattle off pages yet have no recall whatsoever of what she’d just read. And like me she tends to outscore her true abilities on standardized tests– her TACHS were in the 99th %tile and her SHSAT was 50 points below the cutoff despite the fact that she was borderline failing half her classes.

I got through college by taking as many linguistics, foreign language, history and literature classes as possible. I had to avoid anything abstract (like religion or philosophy). Because of my strong memory, I was able to compose papers and essays in my head, so by the time I started typing it was only 15 minutes of transcribing and proofreading. I sometimes wonder if it was that ability alone that got me through 4 years of misery. By day’s end I finished with a 3.75 gpa– that factors in the philosophy D– so not too low, but higher than it should have been for someone who played mental color games during math class.