"When did you first know you were smart?"
I intended the question as a way for half a hundred unusually bright young African American scholars to get to know one another a little better. But I also intended it as a serious inquiry. I've always been curious about the process by which special people discover and embrace their specialness, and this gathering of bright young black students offered an irresistible opportunity to do some discreet prying.
Their answers, the details of which run from the amusing to the heartbreaking, all wound up at the same place: You can't do it alone.
When did you first know you were smart? One young woman learned it when a teacher at the preschool she was about to enter greeted her reading ability with disbelief. "She said my mother [herself a teacher] was coaching me in the material on the entrance test. Mom immediately snatched me out of that school."
Another scholar, now a Harvard sophomore, said he thought he was slightly retarded until he was in ninth grade. He even had the test scores to prove it. It seems that a particular test administrator at his Atlanta school was labeling virtually all black students slightly retarded.
"The funny thing is, I was making great grades, but I thought it was luck." He said he had no confidence in his intellectual ability until another teacher at the same school told him he was close to achieving a high enough grade average to be exempted from the final exam. Would he like some help?
"I really, really really didn't want to take that final, I was so scared, so I said yes. She told me to come to her office the next day and bring a snack, and she'd give me a little test to see where I was. Well the test she gave me was the final, and I made 97 percent even though I hadn't studied for it. When I found out what had happened, I thought, `Hey, I must be smart.' You know, until you believe you are smart, a test score tells you nothing."
One woman said she took delight in her ability, as a preschool applicant, to psych out the psychologist who wanted her to draw some simple picture. Her response was to draw some crazy thing with pictures within pictures. It didn't help her to get into the school, she recalls, but it did make her feel smart.
A young man from New York knew he was smart the day he earned his first victory in a game he and his father used to play. They'd go into the supermarket, make their purchases and then try to guess the total including tax. Dad never cut him the least bit of slack, he recalls. Then one day he won, and he kept winning -- not always, but frequently. "I knew my dad was smart, so when I beat him that first time, I figured I must be smart too." He was 6 at the time.
Two young women, one from the District and the other from Detroit, remember being inspired by older sisters, who coached them, challenged them -- and who subsequently wrecked their own lives.
As one put it, "The difference between my sister and me is that I was motivated -- by teachers, by Mike Mallory, executive director of the Ron Brown Scholars, and by others who took an interest. If there's always somebody -- or somebodies -- to motivate you and have faith in you, you can make it. I'm going to make it."
These young people -- drawn from across the country by the lure of the Ron Brown Scholar Program and the largess of Linda and Tony Pilaro, whose CAP Foundation furnishes the economic wherewithal for the program they named to honor the late secretary of commerce -- are enough to give a cynical journalist his own Rocky Mountain high.
It's a small program, now in its third year, with just 20 "winners" each year. But it is worth its weight just for the reminder that, in these days of affirmative-action debates and intellectual self-doubts, there are these young people so bright, innocent, expectant -- and worthy.
That they are African American youngsters is, for these four days in Aspen, at least, almost a side issue. America -- white and black -- sometimes forgets that kids such as these exist.