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It's Genius, Dumbass

By Tim Murphy:

Sister Edith was our grade school principal. She replaced Sister Dionysius, who was very highly regarded by the moms. Sister Edith had a big habit to fill. The principal of the school was also the Mother Superior of the parish convent. In an attempt to get more active and learn more about us kids, she substituted for our regular teacher one day. Miss Keenan had an emergency; we weren’t told what the emergency was, she just left abruptly and did not come back for the day. So, Sister Edith came into the classroom, but she didn’t have a lesson plan and apparently did not like Miss Keenan’s lesson plan, so she improvised.

She decided to go one by one down the rows and tell each of us what our IQ was. I guess we took a test, though none of us knew it. She didn’t tell us the number, just her ranking, whether we were average, above average, or below average. So she went, one by one, calling out our names and saying—with a little hesitation for dramatic effect—what her interpretation of the rating was: Laura Alwurm . . . below average; Donnie Brozek . . . above average; and down the row through the alphabet she went. I know, some of you are thinking that this was terrible. But it was the 60s, and the times were different. You didn’t get a trophy for just participating back then; you had to earn it or live with the consequences, and then your conscience.

I was in the middle—Timothy Murphy—and as I listened and watched, I began to daydream, speculating what my ranking was. I started thinking what if I was an undiscovered genius? It was something that I had often wondered about, although I was never accused, nor was it ever proven. As Sister Edith went down the alphabet, I had a lot of time to let that speculation grow.

When it came to Patrick Horan, Sister Edith paused; Patrick was our class bad boy. You could say "bad boy" back then. He was a troublemaker, and really fun to be around—until he got caught, and he got caught a lot. This was in 4th grade, but I had known Patrick since 1st grade. His reputation grew each year. He was the first person that I knew who had the guts to pull a fire alarm to get us all to vacate the school. Patrick and Sister Edith were acquainted, even though she was pretty new to the school. She called out his name and started shaking her head. “What a shame, what a shame . . . You have one of the highest scores that I have ever seen, and what have you done with your gift? You’ve made it the devil’s playground! What a shame, wasting such talent . . . such a disappointment.” Well, that was a surprise; Patrick never scored very high on the tests that the teachers gave on the subjects we were learning. He was just a goof off who knew he was smart—although pulling the fire alarm to get us out of school was pretty brilliant.

Then Keith Lamb, Anna Marie Muchmore, Brian Murphy . . . We were getting close. Brian Murphy, above average (yeah, yeah, he was very smart, let’s go . . .). She called out my name and shook her head and said, “Huh,” and I braced myself for the newly crowned class genius—after all Patrick Horan was only “one of the highest,” there was room at the top to go higher. After the “Huh,” she said, “slightly above average.” Wait? What? Slightly . . . no one had gotten a slightly. I was usually one of the last to go down in the Spelling Bee, I did very well in the Arithmetic Races on the blackboard . . . Slightly? . . . Not slightly above genius or even slightly below genius, slightly above average. This test was slightly warped, and when did we take it anyway? I didn’t even know we took the test . . . slightly above average: what the heck is that? Ridiculous!

Sister Edith went on: Vita Musonis, Donna Norkis, Connie Petro, Linda Praschuk . . . I didn’t hear any of their scores, my mind was racing through this sham of an evaluation. I did hear Agnes Sinwelski, above average—of course she was, she made me feel warm even though I didn’t know why; she was well above average in my book. I usually lost to her in the Arithmetic Races because when I stood next to her up at the blackboard, I lost my focus.

And then Sister Edith came to Christopher Ulm. He was a kid that lived up the street, and I always thought he was kind of dull—I mean that in a nice way, well maybe there is a nicer way; he was very relaxed. He couldn’t hit a baseball. He threw like a . . . well, he didn’t throw very well. He was tall and skinny but couldn’t play basketball. He just lived life in slow motion. He did everything slow, he even walked slow. The only notable thing that I could remember about him was that he and his sisters put on a backyard carnival in the summer, and it was spectacular: they made popcorn bags, had prizes, did marionettes with a little homemade stage, had singing and dancing on another stage . . . it was really, really good; but I was sure it was because of his older sisters, not Christopher. And Sister Edith called out his name and shook her head again, and I was sure she was going to say that he had the worst score in the class because he was so slow he probably didn’t finish the stupid test. But she didn’t.

He had the highest score she had ever seen.

Well, now I knew it was a scam—and I still can’t remember even taking the stupid test! Surely, there was no throwing involved, and it must not have been timed, and there couldn’t have been an ethics portion because Patrick wouldn’t have gotten through that very cleanly. Stupid test.

I don’t know what ever came of Patrick. I imagine he is Illinois State Senator or Representative or something. And I don’t know what happened to Christopher, I could never slow down to keep up with him. I guess he went on to be a good thinker somewhere, maybe a philosophy major or something.

When I told this story to Kelly (someone that knows things about child development), she was shocked. Sister Edith should never have made those judgements, nor should she have gone public with the information—that was in violation of our personal space. She said it could be very damaging to the emotional health of a child. She asked me if the nuns had any training in education. I told her that I was sure they did, and the schools were very highly ranked academically. I told her that because I went to one for 8 years (I didn’t really have any scientific basis for saying it, but I am sure of it). I don’t think the nuns put a lot of training into the emotional stuff (again, I have no scientific basis for saying that, just some emotional scars that I probably deserved).

So, I have been watching the news and there is a lot of judgement going on out there (how qualified that judgement may be questionable). There doesn’t seem to be a lot of attention being spent on the emotional well-being of folks. Scientific evidence seems to be lacking. Public humiliation has run amuck. There is no holding sacred of one’s personal space. I listen to people talk about events, and they seem to fall into a couple of camps: there are the people who voted for Biden, the people who voted for Trump, the people who voted against Trump, and the people who voted against Biden. There were 70 some million people who voted for Trump (or against Biden). And 70 some million who voted for Biden (or against Trump). And 70 some million think the other 70 some million are dumbasses. Not just disagree with or consider them misinformed, or slightly misinformed, or having below average IQs, or slightly above average stupidity, or a little slow . . . they are just dumbasses.

Sister Edith may have been way ahead of her time (after all, she was the Mother Superior). It seems that a lot of us maybe think we are smarter than the rest of us, or perhaps we think we are smarter than we really are. And we want to go public with our self judgements. Regardless of the scientific proof of our genius status—or the lack thereof—we have determined ourselves to be the judge, jury, and executioner for anyone who doesn’t see it our way. Whatever measurement might suggest we are wrong, well, surely it is flawed science. There really is no test for dumbass—that I know of any way—but maybe that says something in itself. But as you watch and listen, well, who needs a test? It is all right there on the TV.

Speaking of TV and thinking about the then and the now, I came up with a list of top ten conclusions.

  • Some public displays should remain private.

  • Brains plus brilliance does not always equal ethical.

  • Declaring oneself judge, jury, and executioner can be very dangerous.

  • Sometimes superior isn’t.

  • Whenever I am only considering myself, I tend to be stupid.

  • Losing focus doesn’t add up well.

  • Scientific basis is important, but it can be trumped with BS if you just repeat yourself several times.

  • Things are not always what they seem.

  • Pray that you aren't put to the test.

  • Slowing down can be genius.

So, I want to go on record to say that Kelly did not call Sister Edith a dumbass. Barry Zylie did though, after that class back in 4th grade out on the playground. Guess where he got ranked?


Tim Murphy grew up on the south side of Chicago in a home filled with Catholic Irish traditions. He has kissed the Blarney Stone and been given the gift of storytelling. He attended Catholic Grade School, public high school and a Lutheran College—which perhaps has shaped his somewhat irreverent style. In his sixty-four years, he has received many blessings, and despite his misbehavior, they seem to keep coming.

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