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Frank Nemec - Friends, School, and Community

This essay began with a question Nathan Bar-Fields posted on Facebook in June 2016. This was his question:

I've just recalled something about me that I'm not sure how rare or common is for other humans. I'll share it with you, and you tell me if you can or could do the same or not. When I was a teenager, I learned that I could turn off my attraction for someone if I wanted to do so. The result wasn't immediate, but in about 2-7 days, I could become neutral about someone in the romance or, probably more accurately, puppy love department. It didn't apply to traits, just to specific people. I also couldn't do the opposite. That is I couldn't make myself attracted to someone I genuinely wasn't "feeling it" for. In my case, this mostly developed as a survival mechanism (gotta love being a LGBTIA kid in a blue collar, sports loving, Christian town in the '90s). While that alone is an interesting topic for another day, I'm more interested in figuring out how common this is for people. I also wonder if it is a skill or ability that people with strong neurodivergent abilities have that others lack. For instance, is it more common with people with high IQs? High EQs? Is there no rhyme or reason to who has this capability?

Good, thought-provoking question! Brutal criticism by my father gave me a low self-image. My feelings for the girls went largely unfulfilled because I lacked the self-respect to interact with them. It wasn't until high school that I formed a dating relationship with a girl who, from the beginning, liked me for who I was, and wasn't afraid to show it. That helped make those years some of the best of my life.

In fifth grade, I observed a boy who was popular. His mom was very active in the school and also very popular. I decided it would be a good idea to be his friend, so I actively cultivated that. I'd hang out with him at recess and lunch. That meant incidentally hanging out with his friend, more toward the opposite (lower) end of the social scale. The original target drifted away, and this incidental contact became my very best friend for many years. He was not an intellectual peer, just a good friend. At that point, I had no clue that I needed intellectual peers.

My parents had a nice home but in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. My only intellectual peers were adults, with whom I could easily converse. In junior high, I was really lucky. A group of about 8 thinkers entered the school at the same time, academically head-and-shoulders above the rest. We challenged each other. We competed among ourselves for grades and the limited set of academic awards. We had one superb math teacher. I thrived in that environment. I taught myself touch-typing, one of the best choices I ever made! I developed another close friendship, someone else with whom I competed for the last-to-be-chosen for the PE sports teams. He got me into ham radio, another very good choice. I don't know how my life would have developed without those peers. I think all of us went to the only college-preparatory public high school in the city (Benjamin Franklin High School). An admission requirement was an IQ of 120 or above. My ham radio friend didn't score high enough on his first testing, so he started out at an ordinary public high school. It was torture for him, since he had no more supporting peer group. He retook the test and passed, rejoining the rest of us. He is finishing a career as a professor of mathematics at Purdue.

At this school, we suddenly switched from intellectually extraordinary to ordinary. We had a school full of peers just like us. We could all compete, and even those of us not at the top of that class did well.

Then came an even steeper transition. MIT had the freedom to select the best of the best among its applicants. I was now swimming full steam ahead just to stay above water. Also very stimulating and very rewarding. I spent all 4 years living on Conner Fifth. That was the 5th floor of the oldest dormitory on campus, a converted apartment building. It was considered the 'worst'. But I was living among my peers and made many friends. It was a wonderful experience, and the opportunity to move into a single room in a new dorm wasn't nearly enough to draw me away from the friendships.

If you think I'm building a case for intelligent children to grow up among their intellectual peers, you're very perceptive. You might even be intelligent. The differences in my own experience were very striking, though in hindsight.