The Geniuses Among Us

Kanye_West_at_the_2009_Tribeca_Film_Festival

I’ve never forgotten a moment during a mathematics test when I was walking up and down the aisles of my classroom monitoring the progress of my students who were working away to complete the calculations before the bell rang for the next period. I quietly looked down at their test papers as I strolled from one desk to another trying not to disturb them unless one of them had a question. I was happy to note that all of them appeared to be working away in a frenzy of understanding, ratifying my hopes that I had somehow done my job of teaching them well. As I neared the end of my route on the last row of desks I noticed a boy staring intently at the bulletin board that was located adjacent to his desk. He appeared to be in an almost hypnotic state, so I worried that he was somehow confused by the questions on the test paper that lay on his desk or perhaps concerned about a personal problem. Whatever the reason, it seemed to be all consuming.

As I made an uncharacteristically swift bee line to his location he didn’t even notice my impending arrival. Instead he continued to almost burn a hole in the display on the wall with his unmoving eyes. Even when I was standing right behind him he did not move a muscle, seemingly unaware of my presence in his personal zone. Before I had time to interrupt his thoughts I noted with horror that he had only finished half of the problems on his test and the clock was ticking rapidly toward the final ten minutes of work time. I was about to shake him from his reverie when he suddenly turned in his seat with a smile and triumphantly announced, “I found him!” Only then did he glance my way and notice me for the first time. He looked at me in wonderment and repeated his words once again as though he believed that I understood their meaning, “I found him!”

I was agitated and confused, but he was disturbingly calm as I asked  him what he was doing and why he was making such an enigmatic comment. He looked at me with a kind of amusement that I was so dense, explaining that he had managed to find Waldo. That’s when I realized that he had been peering at a gigantic poster that featured the little guy with a stocking cap who over and over again becomes lost in a sea of humanity. The student had become mesmerized by the hunt to the point of losing his way into the world of a make believe puzzle rather than attending to the work of the test. As I stood incredulously before him I didn’t know weather to laugh, cry or visit an outburst of anger upon him. I chose quiet resignation instead, and gently congratulated him on his victory while reminding him that he had only a few minutes to complete as much of the test as possible. I physically handed him his pencil, focused his gaze on the teat paper and indicated the urgency of the matter with a concerned expression on my face.

Later that day I felt compelled to grade the boy’s test first to determine how much damage he had inflicted on himself with his distraction. Perhaps not so amazingly he had actually finished all of the problems and his mistakes were minor enough to earn him one of the few almost perfect scores. It was only then that I burst into unmitigated laughter, because I had always believed that this quirky child who often challenged me and his other teachers was in truth a kind of little genius in our midst. I understood that his mind was on a slightly different plane than the rest of us, and that his utterances revealed the workings of a mind running free through a world of thoughts that were often provoking and sometimes strange. Indeed he was gifted, of a mind that confounded us as it raced from one idea or question to another.

I’ve taught a number of students like that during my career. They are quite different from their peers and more often then not misunderstood. They rarely fit into a mold that defines them and many times even their teachers wonder if they are really great thinkers or simply frauds who enjoy rocking boats for their own entertainment. Genius does not always reveal itself easily. Sometimes we don’t see the clues and we misinterpret the behaviors.

We’ve all heard about the difficulties that Albert Einstein endured in his early years. His questions and frustrations were viewed by his teachers and those who attempted to manage him as audacity and laziness. Even after earning a degree he was unable to land a position as a teaching professor because his thinking was so orthodox that nobody was willing to provide him with a reference. Instead he was reduced to working as a clerk at a government patent office where he often became the target of his frustrated boss who complained that he worked too slowly and without any discernible enthusiasm. It was not his job that fascinated him but rather the research that he conducted in the evenings that occupied his mind. He prolifically published one theory after another until his thinking finally caught someone’s eye and eventually that of the entire world. Even at the height of his fame, however, his beliefs were often controversial, exposing him to criticism and even investigations and persecution. Somehow like most geniuses he lived in a world of his own creation inviting those with an open mind to partake of his thinking.

We have geniuses in our own time and in almost every case there is something almost other worldly about them. They are creators and free thinkers who see the universe through lenses that are different from the rest of us. Their minds are ablaze with thoughts which when uttered may seem bizarre, impossible or even controversial. We may view them as being a bit crazy because they are willing to suggest ideas that appear to be foolhardy or out of touch. They many times endure the ire of society when they innocently express their beliefs. They often live in ways that fly in the face of convention and refuse to apply filters to their behavior and utterances. They make enemies, but also force us to pause for a moment to consider possibilities that have never before crossed our minds. They provide the engines of progress and debate that we humans require to solve the mysteries of the world.

Of late we’ve been hearing about Kanye West, a celebrity who at first glance appears to be little more than a spoiled entertainer whose wealth has isolated him from reality. Things that he does and says sometimes  appear to border on insanity and other times seem more like heresy. He becomes an annoyance that we want to crush, but then we study the body of his work and his many careers and realize that he is much more complex than he at first appears to be. He is more akin to the boy who has found Waldo than a trouble maker. While we are doing our best just to get from one day to the next, Kanye is constantly thinking about things and rearranging accepted beliefs and values. He is asking questions and challenging conventional wisdom. Taken in soundbites his utterances may seem to be the product of someone who lacks empathy or manners, but when considered against the backdrop of all that he has achieved they become the intellectual considerations of a true genius. Rather than condemning him we would do well to allow him the free reign to develop critical questions and thoughts that few of us would have the courage to utter.

Kanye West is a true genius who was writing poetry at the age of five and went on to create some of the most poetic lyrics in hip hop. The world is his canvas and the wanderings of his mind rarely stop. We may not like some of the things that he does and says, because he is a free thinker who does not hide even his most controversial ideas. Like so many geniuses before him he is unwilling to be fettered by convention or political correctness, and the truth is that we should all want to protect his right to be who he is regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us. He is thinking out loud and his stream of consciousness may be confusing unless we take the time to contemplate his thoughts in context and with deliberation. Like all geniuses he ultimately is not worried about what we may be thinking, so it is up to each of us to carefully parse his words and allow him the freedom that each and everyone of us deserves. In the end his are simply opinions that we may take or leave. It would only be wrong if we were to dismiss him only because we disagree. Kanye West is figuratively searching for Waldo and it is important that we encourage him to find what he seeks. 

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