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20th-Century Genius, 21st-Century Idiot

When I was 16, every student in our junior class trooped to the gymnasium, where we were given the SAT exams. The lengthy Scholastic Aptitude Tests focused on English and math skills. I scored so well that 15 or so years later, those scores got me into Mensa.


I point this out not to brag but to explain how far I have fallen.

For my genius days were in the 20th century. Nowadays, I am stupid.

In the summers between my college years, I would visit employment agencies to find temporary work. Usually I was successful. I had solid typing, filing, spelling, and math skills and, if given a chance, would be a reliable clerk.

The better agencies tested the applicants’ skills. Because computers hadn’t yet invaded their offices, I always tested well.

One agency, bless its heart, found me a short job within walking distance of home, making photocopies in a law office. It was great to work so close to home because back then I got around by public bus.

The bus system worked well, and I recall one summer taking a bus and then two transfers to reach a financial company’s headquarters, where I typed up satisfactions of mortgage.

After college, I stayed away from temp agencies. Until we moved to New Hampshire. Then I knocked on the doors of both temp agencies in our town. By now it was 2010 or 2011, 30 years after my first success with temp agencies.

The first agency gave me its test. Except it wasn’t testing job skills. It was asking personal questions, with the answers in multiple-choice format. And it was administered via computer.

They were probably trying to determine the character or sobriety of the applicants. If they had interviewed me personto-person, they would have been convinced of my character. But no, they relied on a computer to ask the questions.

One question stumped me because it used a word I had never seen before. I asked the test giver what the word meant. No, she wasn’t allowed to help. I asked the test giver if I could go home and look up the word in my unabridged dictionary. No, that wasn’t allowed. I asked if I could write my own answer instead of choosing a pre-written one. No, that wasn’t allowed; I had to choose a provided response. I asked the test giver if I could skip the question. No, that wasn’t allowed.

So in the end I had to guess.

The question asked what I would do if I found out a co-worker was using a certain substance — and this substance is what I had never heard of. For all I knew, it was a needed medicine, like insulin. Turns out the unknown word was an illegal drug. Because I’ve never paid attention to the drug scene, and because I guessed wrong, I flunked the test and slunk away, never to return.

In the foreword to a book called Send for the Saint, author Leslie Charteris wrote this about himself and a couple of other Mensans: “We may seem stupid to you, but we have certificates that say we aren’t.”

The second agency, to my delight, tested job skills and didn’t ask any what-would-you-do questions. They put me in front of a computer, and the test came up. First were English questions — spelling and grammar. I’m sure I scored great on that.

Then came math. I’ve always been good at math. Starting as a kid, I could work out any hitter’s batting average and any pitcher’s earned run average without using a calculator.

But the math questions stumped me, even though I knew the answers. For there was no way to type in or write the answer.

Instead, the test required me to use computer keys to make the computer solve each math problem. I had never — and still haven’t — been taught this skill. I asked the person in charge to let me answer the questions without using the computer. Nope, not allowed.

So I failed that test. And slunk away, never to return.

In the eyes of the local temp agencies — and probably in the eyes of any business that focuses foremost on what their computers tell them — I am an idiot.

In the foreword to a book called Send for the Saint, author Leslie Charteris wrote this about himself and a couple of other Mensans: “We may seem stupid to you, but we have certificates that say we aren’t.”

Leslie, I’m with you.


Arthur Vidro is a longtime fiction evaluator for the Bulletin and runs the Old-Time Detection Special Interest Group, which celebrates the golden age of detective fiction.

Arthur earns his living as an editor, proofreader, and newspaper columnist. His short stories have sold to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Woman's World, Mystery Weekly Magazine, and various anthologies. His nonfiction has sold to Mystery Scene and EQMM. Arthur writes for the Senior Wire news service. And he's a longtime evaluator of fiction for the Bulletin.

New Hampshire Mensa I Life Member, Joined 1998